BANGOR, Maine — Food, what is grown in Maine and how to get it into the mouths of hungry people, was the topic of the day at a Thursday morning panel discussion convened by Bangor City Councilor Ben Sprague. The answer — support Maine’s farmers.
The Bangor Area Food Summit drew about 100 people to Husson University to listen to a panel comprising farmers, legislators, scientists and nonprofit organizers, and talk about how to nurture that crucial connection.
Sprague related an incident he witnessed a few years ago in downtown Bangor, in which he was leaving work late at night and saw a woman and a girl retrieving rotten apples that had fallen from a nearby tree — not to clean up the street, but to eat.
“There’s hungry people throughout Maine. It’s our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers,” Sprague said. “At the same time, there are many challenges that exist for farmers in our state. We are one of the most rural states in the country, and yet farming is particularly challenging.”
Panelists included Melissa Huston of the Good Shepherd Food-Bank; Dr. Rebecca Boulos, a food policy and applied nutrition professor at New England University; Kristen Michelle Brown, a doctoral candidate in plant sciences at the University of Maine; state Rep. Craig Hickman of Winthrop; and Heather Retberg of Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot. Representatives from Food AND Medicine, a local food and health care advocacy organization, also were on hand.
Huston noted that Good Shepherd supplied 950,000 pounds of Maine farm product to hungry families in 2013 through its Mainers Feeding Mainers program. Of the nearly 1 million pounds, 450,000 was purchased and 500,000 was donated. Mainers Feeding Mainers started from a need to supply more fresh produce to families, as the produce they were receiving from farms in California was often partially spoiled by the time it reached Maine, making it unusable.
“It all started out of a conversation that came from going to farmers and asking them, ‘What are your challenges?’” Huston said. “The No. 1 thing that they said was that they don’t plant to capacity because they can’t process the food, that there aren’t enough slaughterhouses in Maine, that they can’t use their farms to their full potential. So by providing a safety net for these farmers so they can use everything they grow, we also are able to provide more healthy food to the people of Maine. … It’s a win-win.”
Hickman meets with many of the individuals who put services like food pantries to good use. He grows produce at his Annabessacook Farm in Winthrop and gives much of it away to those in need.
“You can’t always tell if a person is hungry. People are too proud to talk about it sometimes. We are blessed to have that excess harvest that we can put out on the side of the road,” Hickman said. He sponsored a bill last year, LD 475: An Act to Increase Food Sovereignty in Local Communities, which failed at the committee level.
The food sovereignty movement in Maine has seen strong support in communities such as Blue Hill and Brooksville, which passed ordinances to allow food producers and processors to sell their goods directly to consumers without state or federal oversight, exempting them from licensing and inspection laws. Opponents of the movement say it creates a dangerous precedent for removing safety standards from health and nutrition professionals, putting it in the hands of the farmers themselves.
On Thursday, the discussion was focused on ways to better supporting the farms already here, in part, as several suggested, by supporting the development of processing plants for produce, dairy and meats.
“We just don’t have the infrastructure in place to get that product into people’s hands,” Huston said. “If we were able to create those kinds of things in Bangor, we could really turn it into a food hub.”
In the short term, Boulos suggested to those wondering how they can help to continue to talk about local food and share information about local food with anyone who will listen.
“You never know what somebody else doesn’t know,” Boulos said. “Just by sharing a recipe, talking about a market or a garden, getting the word out about what resources we have in the area, you make the small differences that contribute to creating a better and more connected food culture in your community.”