AUGUSTA — Maine farms will be able to sell more of their products to local school districts and food pantries under two pieces of legislation signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills.

One measure provides matching funds for school districts to purchase produce from Maine farms. The bill also creates a new position with the Maine Department of Education that will help schools coordinate those purchases and train local staff in how to participate.

“This bill will help Maine farmers find buyers for their produce, and help Maine students have greater access to fresh, healthy meals,” said state Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, the bill’s primary sponsor.

Under the new law, schools will receive a $1 reimbursement for every $3 they spend with local farms for minimally processed fruits and vegetables, for up to $2,000 year.

Martha Poliquin, the school nutrition director at Falmouth Public Schools, who testified in support of the measure, told lawmakers her school district procures about 30 percent of its food from local sources and the new law will help other districts increase their local food procurement as well.

Poliquin called the reimbursement “seed money”  in that it encourages schools to buy food locally, it creates buy-in from parents and the community for school nutrition programs when they know food is fresh and locally grown, and it gives local farmers solid regular customers, ensuring they continue to raise crops locally.

“When they know they have a school customer committed to purchasing a predetermined amount of fresh produce, they invest in the seeds they need to fill those orders,” Poliquin said in testimony before the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.

Mills, a Democrat, signed the bill – and another that provides up to $1 million a year to nonprofit food pantries for the purchases of locally raised food – into law last week.

The other bill directs the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to contract with a nonprofit whose mission includes reducing food insecurity in a statewide hunger-relief effort.

The new law revitalizes the Mainers Feeding Mainers Program, which would have lost its state funding if not renewed this year. The measure allocates $1 million in funding to provide local grants, support the procurement of local foods and pay for operation and distribution expenses, according to a release by the bill’s primary sponsor, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.

The funding would largely be distributed by the Good Shepherd Food Bank, the only statewide nonprofit to meet the new law’s description. The bank provides food to a network of 400 local food pantries and contracts with 71 Maine farms for food, said Kirsten Miale, the food bank’s president.

Good Shepherd sourced more than 2.1 million pounds of the food it distributed in 2018 from local farms, spending about $750,000 on Maine-raised food, Miale told lawmakers in April.

About 14 percent of Maine households are considered food insecure, and one in five children, as well as one in four elderly Mainers, do not have adequate access to nutritious food, Jackson’s office said.

 

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