Real Food Challenge picks Portland to promote greater use of local foods in schools

Posted July 18, 2013, at 9:13 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — A group seeking to increase the amount of locally grown and sustainable foods in America’s colleges and universities is holding its annual retreat in Portland this week, where organization leaders say they hope to gain a greater foothold in Maine.

Organizers of the Real Food Challenge, which is based in Cambridge, Mass., arrived in Maine’s largest city Wednesday and will hold trainings and workshops for about 30 new field organizers and group leaders through Monday.

Timothy Galarneau, coordinator for the California-based Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems and a member of the Real Food Challenge administration, said the public is invited to an informal networking event with retreat participants Sunday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Local Sprouts Cafe on Congress Street.

Galarneau said the organization, which was launched in 2008, hopes to divert 20 percent of the $5 billion annually spent by American colleges and universities on food toward locally grown, sustainable foods. That would create $1 billion per year in new revenues — and provide much-needed financial stability — for the country’s local and organic farmers and food producers, he said.

In Portland, Galarneau will find some like-minded individuals. Mayor Michael Brennan has been outspoken about a goal to increase the amount of locally produced food used in Portland Public Schools from about 7 percent to 50 percent within the next five years.

Representatives from Portland Public Schools were invited to the White House two years ago in recognition of the district’s participation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s HealthierUS School Challenge — highlighting, in part, the schools’ increased use of healthier and locally grown produce.

Among the Mainers being called in to share expertise with the Real Food Challenge officials this week are Jamien Richardson, co-owner of the Maine Harvest Co., and Marada Cook of the Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative.

Galarneau said that while his organization isn’t focused on elementary and high school level food consumption directly, the smaller schools would benefit from increased spending on locally produced food by their post-secondary counterparts. Increases in the amounts and reliability of sales would allow farmers and food producers to sell their goods for less, Galarneau reasoned, making the proposition of going local less expensive for lower-level public schools like Portland’s.

“When colleges and hospitals buy into this, they’re also buying into making it more accessible to school,” he said. “It’s peripheral in some ways to our target, but it’s essential to our larger vision.”

The Real Food Challenge provides tools for colleges and universities to track their food purchasing and seeks commitments from those institutions to increase spending on “community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources” to 20 percent of their overall food expenditures.

Galarneau said that no Maine colleges or universities are among the 400 his group is actively working with currently, but that Challenge representatives have made contact with students from Bates and Colby colleges with interest in launching initiatives there.

He said that with the organization’s presence in Maine this week, he hopes the “Real Food” message will take greater hold in the state.

“This is kind of an opportunity to create space and talk about how to further do that while we’re there,” he said. “We’re really excited to be up in Maine for our national gathering, and we’re trying to connect the food system to the people in that region.”

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