Food is displayed Tuesday at the Moose Tracks Cafe at the University of Maine at Augusta. The dining hall will offer Maine-grown broccoli in the fall through a partnership between the university system’s food distributor, Sodexo, and a subsidiary of Good Shepherd Food Bank that works with local food producers. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — A new initiative will soon bring locally grown broccoli into the dining halls of the seven schools in the University of Maine System.

The vegetable — one of the most popular in college cafeterias — will be grown in Aroostook County, then flash frozen and distributed to the schools, including the University of Maine at Augusta and University of Maine at Farmington, as soon as this fall.

The partnership between the University of Maine’s food supplier, Sodexo, and Harvesting Good, a for-profit subsidiary of Good Shepherd Food Bank, will also extend to some of Sodexo’s other large accounts, such as Central Maine Healthcare, which runs the Lewiston hospital.

Maeve McInnis directs the Sodexo program Maine Course, which first introduced local products — mainly whitefish — to the University of Maine system about five years ago. She said she and her boss at Sodexo chose to add broccoli this year because of how popular it is at universities. They saw it as a vegetable that also could be easily frozen and produced in Maine, benefitting the food supply economy.

“On college campuses, broccoli is probably the biggest-moving vegetable,” McInnis said. “Not only that, but having access to a frozen broccoli product would also help extend the ability to (serve) local products throughout the year.”

MORE LOCAL FOOD, LESS WASTE

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Maine Course began in 2015 and is a statewide food-sourcing program for Sodexo’s accounts in Maine aimed at providing more Maine-produced food options and reducing waste. The program first partnered with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and made gains when it went from purchasing 20% “under-loved” whitefish in 2018 to purchasing 100% in 2020 for all University of Maine campuses.

Maine Course is unique to the state, but is the second program of its kind within the company. The first was in Vermont.

According to McInnis, similar programs are on their way to being started in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. But Maine and Vermont are the “catalysts in the show case” of what can be done through the program, she said.

To get the frozen broccoli initiative off the ground, McInnis connected with Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food Bank, and realized there was a shared interested in finding and sustaining frozen fruits and vegetables. The pair kept in touch and together wrote a proposal for funding through the Kendall Food Vision Prize. They ended up winning $250,000 in seed money in 2019.

Sodexo spends around $1 million annually on state-grown food for its customers in Maine. The investments have allowed some Maine farms to expand from having staff primarily during harvesting season to employing people year-round to accommodate the demand.

AN ABUNDANCE OF BROCCOLI

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Matt Chin, the president of Harvesting Good, said other reasons why broccoli was chosen for the Sodexo partnership include that its plentiful and is harvested after blueberry season.

Broccoli that may be served at University of Maine dining halls this fall grows in rows at Circle B Farms in Caribou. Courtesy of Matt Chin

“In some of the research we had done, broccoli florets were the number one consumed veggie in the Northeast at 28 million pounds, half of which is consumed at institutions like universities, high schools, hospitals and prisons; and the other half is consumed through the retail channel,” Chin said. “It’s growing in great abundance and in high quality in the state and the harvest of broccoli is after the harvest of blueberries.”

Chin said most of the broccoli consumed in the Northeast is grown in Aroostook County, Maine’s northernmost county. For the program, Circle B Farms in Caribou will grow, harvest, cool and transport the broccoli crowns to the processor, WR Allen in Orland, which will then cut and freeze the product. Jasper Wyman and Sons — famous for its blueberries — will package the broccoli in Milbridge.

Since WR Allen lacked the tools needed to process broccoli, Harvesting Good is spending $5 million to equip the company with three floret cutters, a blancher, a chiller, and a 7,000-square-foot structure to house them. Meanwhile, the organization is helping Circle B Farms apply for grants to fund equipment that will help it harvest broccoli. Chin said the reason for this approach is because the company plans to partner exclusively with WR Allen as its processor, but wants to partner with more farms in the future and cannot provide equipment to all of them.

Through this process, broccoli goes from having a four-to-six-week harvest to being able to be eaten fresh year round.

The surplus of broccoli will be donated to the Good Shepherd Food Bank’s partners.

“There are so many benefits in investing in the food system,” Chin said. “There’s the investment in food systems, the investment in small farms, in the blueberry industry, providing locally grown and processed food for the people in New England. A small carbon footprint from transporting it in our backyard, or helping the food insecure … There are so many benefits.”

McInnis said the University of Maine System was excited to bring the broccoli onto its campuses and said the program has the potential to keep expanding the kinds of produce it offers, to corn, peas or carrots, to name a few options.

“The students love it,” McInnis said. “The students love to see the local products that our business has partnered with and the impacts that it has. I think it’s really important.”


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