PORTLAND, Maine — A new city initiative to improve access to healthy, sustainable food in Portland has plans to increase the use of locally produced food in the Portland Public Schools.

At an Aug. 10 meeting, the steering committee of the Mayor’s Initiative for Healthy Sustainable Food Systems voted to explore ways of boosting the proportion of local food in the schools from the current 30 percent to 50 percent.

The meeting was only the committee’s second since it was appointed by Mayor Michael Brennan to lead the initiative, which was formed in June. In addition to Brennan, the committee includes City Councilor David Marshall and more than a dozen community members, many of whom have expertise in food security.

Committee member Jim Hanna told the group that Maine ranks as the state with the second-highest level of ” very low food security,” with nearly 7 percent of its households going hungry. Hanna serves as program manager for the Cumberland County Food Security Council.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture uses the term “very low food security” to refer to occasions when food intake is reduced because of lack of money or other resources.

Such data aren’t available at the local level, Hanna told the committee, but he cited other statistics to illustrate the problem of food security in Portland. Over the past year, for the first time, more than 50 percent of Portland students qualified for free or reduced-price meals through their schools, he said.

“The thing that’s surprising to look at is how poorly Maine ranks [in food security],” Brennan said. “And it’s important that we understand that a significant population in Portland just has difficulty getting access to food.”

Adding to the challenge is the difficulty of finding food that is high quality, he said.

Fresh, locally grown vegetables and fruit often are seen as part of the solution to this dilemma, because they are regarded as nutritious and promoting environmental and economic sustainability.

They’re also — incorrectly — regarded as expensive, according to Marshall.

“The perception is that fresh, organic food is costly,” he said. “But if you compare it to processed food, it’s really about the same.”

He said that additional costs for fresh food often are the result of the preparation that’s required, and that better training of workers in handling fresh food can help lower those costs.

“We pay for [fresh food] in different ways,” added committee member Ralph Carmona, executive director of the Maine Global Institute.

The city school system, with nearly 7,000 students, serves more than 1 million meals per year. About 30 percent of the food served, including bread and dairy products, is from local sources, according to committee member Ron Adams, Portland Public Schools’ food service director.

But he said it is possible to increase that level to about 50 percent, at an average cost of $2.35 per meal, or $925,000 annually. The current cost per meal is $1.30.

He cited examples of other cities that are increasing the use of local food, including Burlington, Vt., whose school system produces meals with a “high volume” of local foods for $1.15 per meal.

Committee members discussed possible links between schools’ use of local food, students’ health and their academic performance.

Brennan said, “To look at how we can better feed kids over time is good, fundamental education policy.” Committee members seemed to agree.

A subcommittee will look further into strategies for helping the school district increase local food use and will present a proposal to the full committee in early fall.

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