MACHIAS, Maine — Nearly 40 people gathered in Machias on Tuesday morning to answer the age old question: How do we keep our neighbors from going hungry?
What excited those at the Food and Fuel Alliance forum is that Washington County people are working cooperatively on solutions that include enticing new farmers to the area, creating a community kitchen and marketplace in downtown Eastport, providing low-cost greenhouse kits, and bolstering the farm-to-school food connection.
Despite having 12 food pantries, dozens of farmers, cooperatives, farmers markets and buying clubs in Washington County, it is estimated that 1,673 Washington County families will go hungry this year.
“We are here to network and learn what is going on in Washington County and how to grow, produce and share our food,” Gini King, director of the Washington County Food and Fuel Alliance, said at the start of the program.
“Our goal is to make it possible for everyone to have access to fresh fruit and vegetables,” said County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald.
From planting an extra row in home gardens, to beefing up what is currently at food pantries and extending the growing season through greenhouses, solutions were sought because the need is great.
Helen Vose, who leads the Machias Area Food Pantry, said her service has tripled in the last few months.
In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency cut back the funding that Machias food pantries receive annually from $31,102 to $23,829.
“With less funds and food costing more, we’re not meeting the need,” King said. “When we talk about food in Washington County, we are talking about farmers, fishermen, school children and the economy.”
The daylong forum was attended by food pantry directors, farmers, farmers market directors, a master gardener, and representatives from the Washington Hancock County Agency and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Heidi Leighton of the Cobscook Bay Resource Center explained an innovative community project under way at Eastport. Working at first with local scallop fishermen, CBRC expanded its plans for a local market, commercial kitchen and cooperative to include local farmers and gardeners.
The marketplace will be at the head of the Eastport breakwater, which is downtown and highly visible.
“This project will be critical to helping strengthen local food security,” she said. Not only will the marketplace provide for development of value-added products, it will become an outlet for locally grown foods.
Regina Grabrovac, the Down East Farm to School coordinator, explained that she is working with more than two dozen area schools to bring fresh food into the lunchroom.
“This is so connected to food security,” she said. “It is also an economic support for local farms which in turn strengthens the local economy.”
Grabrovac said that if only 10 percent of school food was purchased locally, it would mean a $136,000 annual investment in Washington County. If 10 percent of all food purchased in Washington County was raised locally, it would mean a $3.5 million cash influx which would include $641,000 worth of labor.
But before you can buy local food, someone has to grow it.
Alexander farmer Ted Carter said that he is starting a unique program on his After The Rain Farm to hire apprentices and journey people and, while working with Maine Farmland Trust, hopes to provide these new farmers with five- or 10-acre plots of land.
“Washington County has a shortage of growers,” Carter said. “We need to begin reinvigorating the agricultural industry here in Washington County. We need to keep the money here.”
Barbara Anthony of the Machias Farmers Market said a resurgence of interest by small local farmers has the Machias market booming this year.
Because of poor weather, last year was a poor farming year, and as a result, only a few vendors — mostly selling flowers — turned out at the market.
Already this season, Anthony has nine farmers and businesses signed up for the Friday and Saturday market.
“The customer base is there,” she said. “Watch us grow.”