December 19, 2018
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Maine food producers call on universities to think local when feeding students

Christopher Cousins | BDN
Christopher Cousins | BDN
John Piotti, president and CEO of the Maine Farmland Trust, speaks in Augusta in this January 2014 file photo.

BANGOR, Maine — A coalition of Maine food producers and organizations Monday called on the University of Maine System to look to the state’s own farms and fields when deciding how to feed its students and staff during the next decade.

The group, calling itself Maine Food for the UMaine System, issued a report in advance of the system pursuing a new contract to handle food services at six of the system’s seven universities. The system’s flagship campus, the University of Maine in Orono, handles its own food services.

“Maine’s local foods economy has grown in leaps and bounds over the last decade, which was the last time the University of Maine System signed a food contract,” John Piotti, president of the Maine Farmland Trust, said in a news release. “The University of Maine System has a tremendous opportunity in its upcoming food contract to take advantage of, and further catalyze, Maine’s local food movement.”

UMS is preparing to issue a request for proposals for a new food services contract in August and expects to award the contract by early 2016. The exact terms of that contract haven’t been decided, but the current $12.5 million deal with Aramark has been in place for a decade. Aramark is a national food services company based in Philadelphia.

The coalition says USM should take four major steps:

— Commit to purchasing 20 percent “real food” and 20 percent Maine food by 2020. “Real food” refers to products that are “local and community based, fair, ecologically sound and/or humane,” according to the coalition.

— Establish a UMS Food Working Group led by students and campus administration and staff. This group would work with vendors to monitor adherence to the food contract and work with vendors to research and spread new products, dining hall education and producer outreach.

— Have each campus use the Real Food Calculator, an online tool that allows institutions to track their food purchases, monitor progress toward goals and improve food transparency.

— Establish a development chain aimed at scaling up food partnerships between local producers and public/private institutions outside UMS.

Maine Food for the UMaine System also makes several secondary recommendations, including suggested wording that the system should include in its request for proposals. The recommendations have been backed by more than 50 individuals and organizations involved in Maine food production and distribution, as well as 1,500 UMS students and staff.

System officials say they’ve taken note of the coalition’s pitch.

“We welcome the recommendations from the Maine Food for the UMaine System Coalition and are taking them under consideration,” UMS spokesman Dan Demeritt said in a Monday afternoon email. “Our staff and our food service contract consultant have had several meetings with the coalition as we have developed the upcoming RFP.”

In the fall of 2014, the system fed more than 2,700 students through meal plans across six campuses.

In May, the UMS board of trustees approved a policy stating that it would “allow reasonable preference when feasible” for sustainably produced food in order to minimize transportation. That came with the caveat that the sourcing would need to be balanced against cost and other considerations.

“Maine’s farmers are some of America’s best while the agricultural sector is both a cornerstone of Maine’s economy and a key to our economic future,” UMS Chancellor James H. Page said Monday. “The award-winning strategic procurement department we have developed as part of the One University initiative is working closely with Maine-based producers to develop opportunities for local farmers as part of our next food service contract while balancing student desires for affordability and sustainability.”

The coalition’s report calls agriculture a “bright spot” in Maine’s economy. Census data say that between 2007 and 2012, the value of agricultural produce in Maine increased from $617 million to $764 million, or nearly 25 percent.

The system’s flagship campus in Orono, which operates its own dining services, spends about $1 million, or about 18 percent of its food services budget, with Maine-based companies, according to the university.

Those partnerships bring tomatoes from Backyard Farms, blueberries from Wymans, ice cream from Gifford’s, and dozens more.

In urging system officials to spread those sorts of partnerships across the system, the coalition says in its report that a “partnership between the University of Maine System and Maine’s food producers is essential for the growth of Maine’s local food supply chain. Without this commitment, much of the vision outlined throughout these recommendations is not possible.”

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

 


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