Maine is the most food-insecure state in New England — ninth in the nation. That means one in five children under the age of 16 in this state lives in a household uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough nutritious food for all its members.
This information, based on studies from 2007 to 2009 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, appears in a 2010 Coalition Report from The Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine.
“I don’t think that many people in the state of Maine really understand the nature of hunger in the state,” Mark Lapping, professor and executive director of the Muskie School, told a reporter for Maine Public Radio in January. “It’s sort of hidden, hence ‘The Hidden Crisis,'” he said, quoting the report’s introduction.
Equally disturbing is knowledge that Maine imports more food than any other state in the lower 48. Maine — a state that once fed its own residents as well as those in other regions. What happened? Where are we headed? Can Maine, particularly Aroostook County, tap its agricultural traditions to feed itself again?
Groups within and outside The County are answering this question.
“New England will look to Maine and especially Aroostook County as one area for food production,” said Jim Dwyer, crop specialist in the Central Aroostook County Office of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service, citing a USDA forecast that world food production must double in the next 50 years. “The demand for food is coming and there are not that many areas with land availability. [Aroostook has] land mass, skilled farmers and potential.”
Dwyer’s colleague Cooperative Extension Director John Rebar calls agriculture the “growth sector of the economy” noting Maine has added 1,000 new farms in the last 10 years with the most diversified agriculture in New England. “It’s part of the rural character of the state — part of what makes Maine special.”
Rebar cites the Harvest for Hunger campaign coordinated through the Master Gardener Program as Cooperative Extension’s response to food insecurity in Maine. Gardeners and commercial growers are invited to grow an extra row or two or to donate extra produce to help feed the hungry in Maine.
Last year nearly 500 volunteer gardeners in about a dozen counties donated 140 tons of produce to 114 food pantries, shelters or charitable organizations around the state.
“It’s Maine people helping Mainers,” Rebar said. “It brings out the best of what we believe about Maine society: people caring about each other — neighbors helping neighbors.”
While Harvest for Hunger has not yet reached Aroostook County, Lisa Fishman, supervisor for Extension’s Eat Well program in the Northern Aroostook office in Fort Kent, has been working with her counterpart in Houlton to launch the program soon. She is building a core of master gardeners and said 120 volunteers in seven Extension Homemakers clubs between Spragueville and New Sweden are ready to go.
“It’s a coordinated effort,” she said, explaining that providing food is just the beginning; education on how to cook, preserve and store fresh produce is essential.
Harvest for Hunger volunteer gardeners will be asked to partner with food pantries to make the connection with residents who qualify to receive food through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
One key partner will be Catholic Charities of Maine, which supplies 25 pantries from Wytopitlock to St. Francis and from Ashland to Fort Fairfield and served more than 28,000 residents in 2011.
“The one reason we are here is to feed people in Aroostook,” said Dixie Shaw, food bank and home supplies program director. “We’re raising money to feed people.”
With retail stores in Caribou and Presque Isle and food banks in Caribou and Monticello, Catholic Charities sells clothing and household items donated by individuals and thrift stores to fund the purchase and distribution of food for the county’s hungry.
“We sell stuff to turn it into food,” Shaw said, quoting a television commercial portraying herself as a magician: “‘You mean you can turn a pair of shoes into food?’ ‘Just watch this!'”
Shaw said the need is greater than it has ever been in her 23 years with Catholic Charities, in part because people have come to rely on pantries, which originally were created for emergencies, and they want much more than food.
Shaw looks forward to partnering with Harvest for Hunger because fresh produce shipped into the county often spoils before it can be used. “The best scenario is for families to access fresh food directly from farmers,” she said adding that “farmers markets are an exciting population in line with where we want to go.”
Shaw also sees potential in the generation that knows how to can vegetables and preserve food for winter. She envisions people with such skills mentoring those with a desire to learn in churches and senior centers.
“We have the ability to take care of ourselves,” she said. “This is an agricultural community. We know how to grow a garden. We have a lot of people who have a lot to give. It worries me that we have a generation or two who have not been taught.”
Lapping agrees: “Kids can still learn from their parents and grandparents,” he said in an interview. “Aroostook County has incredible soils and a great legacy of agricultural intelligence. Lose it and you’re up a creek.”
For information visit www.ers/usda.gov/Briefing/FoodSecurity, muskie.usm.maine.edu or umaine.edu/harvest-for-hunger.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.