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Maine’s universities should walk the talk on local foods, farms

Posted Aug. 06, 2015, at 12:33 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 06, 2015, at 5:04 p.m.

As a farmer, an advocate for food self-sufficiency and a resident of the great state of Maine, I am pleased — and entirely unsurprised — to see such excitement around the University of Maine System’s upcoming food contract. Its current, 10-year, $12.5 million annual contract with the national food service behemoth Aramark is coming to a close at the end of the 2015-2016 calendar year.

I am pleased because this opportunity for UMS to make a significant commitment to Maine food in the contract renewal is ripe with enormous potential for our great state.

It will be good for our farmers, who need more markets and reliable partnerships to make investments in their businesses and hire more workers. It will be good for our economy because we know dollars spent in Maine stay in Maine. It will be good for our students who will have access to fresher, healthier food. And it will be good for UMS, which will attract more students and positive public relations.

I’ve been unsurprised because common sense says Maine’s public universities ought to procure food from our farms and fisheries. Years ago, our food producers supplied nearly all the food our state consumed — institutions and individuals alike.

In fact, the age-old wisdom of our institutions procuring food from local food producers already is codified into law. The 1983 Purchase of Foodstuffs from Maine Concerns Act says “It is the policy of the State to encourage food self-sufficiency for the State. State institutions and school districts in the State shall purchase food produced by Maine farmers or fishermen, provided that food is available in adequate quantity and meets acceptable quality standards, and is priced competitively.”

In the past several decades, this law has been weakened and unenforced to the point where our state imports 90 percent of the food we eat. Because of the reputation and availability of our signature commodity foods — lobster, wild blueberries and potatoes — Maine always will be a net exporter of food. But it makes no sense for us to import so much of the food we eat. We can do better than this. We must do better. Our economy requires it. The public health, common good and welfare of our people require it.

Last month, my bill, LD 1291, An Act To Promote Food Self-sufficiency for the People of the State, quietly became law. The bill is aimed at redirecting attention — and putting some teeth — into what already is on the books. It directs the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to develop and administer an agricultural jobs network. It also requires the department, to the extent practicable, to purchase food grown, harvested, prepared, processed or produced in the state when purchasing food for an emergency or supplemental food program for elderly or low-income persons.

A law is only effective when it has teeth, and a commitment to local food by UMS only will come to fruition if it’s printed in black and white. This month, the University of Maine System expects to publish language for a request for proposals for a new food contract. The RFP will set the terms and conditions for bidding vendors.

Chancellor James Page and President of the Board of Trustees Sam Collins have made positive statements about including local food in the upcoming contract. Collins said there was “tremendous support” from the board. “It’s good for the future of Maine farmers,” he went on, “and we believe the quality is better. It’s a win-win.”

Music to my ears. But it’s just a melody until the university system makes a commitment — on paper, signed, sealed and delivered — to including Maine food in its contract.

The Maine Food for UMaine coalition, which represents more than 1,500 UMS community members, nearly 200 producers and more than 20 organizations, is recommending 20 percent Maine food systemwide by 2020.

The RFP is where UMS ought to adopt that recommendation and others, including transparency, accountability and a commitment to supply-chain partnerships.

We can praise Maine’s farmers all day long, but we must get serious about state institutions spending our money to support Maine food producers.

I hope, expect and urge our public universities to walk the talk on Maine food — for our farmers, our students and our state.

Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, is an organic farmer and House chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. He represents Winthrop, Readfield, and a part of North Monmouth. He is serving his second term in the Maine House of Representatives.

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