A diverse group of people passionate about healthy food and food security for the county gathered at the June 12 Washington County Food & Fuel Alliance meeting held to provide input for the alliance's future actions. The alliance's most visibly successful program has been the year‑round greenhouse initiative. A growing number of schools and individuals have been involved in the project.
The pressing need of food security was reinforced by a list of facts provided to the meeting participants. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines the county as a "rural food desert," meaning that people lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low‑fat milk and other foods that create a healthy diet. Surveyed food pantry clients have explained that they do not eat fresh produce because of the cost. While food pantry costs have tripled since 2007 because of higher costs and increases in clients, the county continues to see the highest rate of hunger and food insecurity in the state at over 18%. Added to that is the statistic that 40% of those who experience hunger are not eligible for federal and state programs but instead must rely on pantries to help them meet their food needs.
Organizations were well represented at the meeting with staff or representatives from Washington Hancock Community Agency, Maine Center for Disease Control, Washington County: One Community/Healthy Maine Partnerships, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, University of Maine at Machias, the food and fuel alliance, the county commissioners, area food pantries and farmers as well as interested community members. The group expanded in size over the course of the meeting, growing to over 30 by mid‑stride.
To many at the meeting, food security means two things: more food at pantries and, more importantly, redeveloping a culture of self‑sufficiency that is tied to greatly expanding the number of people growing their own food. Some ideas shared about how that might be done included: undertaking educational efforts to increase gardening skills and home‑grown food preparation; and providing homeowners with materials to make raised beds, as an easy, no‑dig way to start a garden, or to make containers for growing, for those who rent or have limited physical abilities.
The need for partnerships was also discussed. Kim Roos of Hatch Knoll Farm explained that many farms including hers lack enough help to pick all the produce that they grow. Quite often during the late summer produce rots in the field, she said. Community service programs in highs schools might be one way to find volunteers willing to pick produce that could then be donated directly to pantries or to commercial kitchens for processing and distribution to pantries. Creating a community supported agriculture share program between pantries and farmers might also allow for innovating with volunteer pickers as a part of the arrangement.
Many agreed that while food pantries are not a solution to the hunger epidemic, they are on the front lines. However, growing their ability to serve people does not really address the problem of food security and redeveloping a culture of self‑sufficiency, pointed out Lubec resident and farmer Dick Hoyt. The alliance and the Washington County Development Authority are exploring the option of having a building in Machias serve as a collection and storage space for food that cannot be immediately accessed by pantries around the county. Hoyt noted that this might be a short‑term solution, but not a long‑term one.
Good Shepherd's work to enhance partnerships
Good Shepherd is the largest provider of food to the state's food pantries, and 11 of the 12 pantries in the county partner with the Auburn‑based nonprofit. Mainers Feeding Mainers Project Director Nancy Perry was at the meeting to describe a number of initiatives that Good Shepherd is implementing to help with food pantry needs. Both Nancy Oden and Maine Sea Cost Mission's Wendy Harrington decried the "sinful" waste of meat that is thrown away by grocers because of pending sell‑by dates. If the meat is frozen before that date, it can still be used, they said. Perry noted that Good Shepherd has a Hannaford employee working with it "who is working to link pantries and stores where salvaged items will be shared." Meat salvage is a part of that picture, she said.
Harking back to the concept of school participation in one way or another, Perry told the group of a school in Portland that will be processing tomatoes into sauce that will be used for the school system, but some of which will be given to Good Shepherd for distribution. The school's commercial kitchen makes these efforts possible.
Perry also is running a "Farmer to Pantry" program. Good Shepherd will contract with farmers to grow specific crops for food pantries for a negotiated price. In 2011 the program had 20 farmers participate. This year there are 60 statewide. "I would love to try it in Washington County to see how it would work." Perry may be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org> or by calling 782‑3554 ext. 1109.
The food and fuel alliance was encouraged by the group to continue holding quarterly meetings. For more information visit <www.foodandfuel.org>.