From MOFGA's Board President
Dear Governor Baldacci,
Thank you for the wonderful opportunity to attend the May 6 dinner at the Blaine House hosted by you and the First Lady, along with Share Our Strength. Discussing the problem of childhood hunger in Maine and what can be done to address it in these challenging economic times is an important step toward mobilizing change, and I commend you for your commitment to this issue.
Also, I appreciate your invitation to share additional thoughts about how to solve this and related issues. I would like to do so now, from my perspective as a volunteer of both MOFGA and Cultivating Community, and as an involved citizen who has a passion for ensuring all people in Maine have access to food that is nutritious and healthy – for those who eat it, as well as those who produce it and those who are neighbors to our producers.
This is a unique time, as journalist Naomi Schalit and others stated artfully at the dinner: More and more, people are ready and willing to talk about hunger and its effects, as well as its causes. As hunger becomes more prevalent, the individual struggle, as well as the overall effects on our society, is magnified. You posed an important question when you asked if it is time to make this a community issue, and encourage Maine’s people to work together on solving this problem at the local level along with the broad-based efforts that are happening at the state and federal level. I believe the answer is yes, and I believe a critical part of building community support and empowering us to respond to hunger in a way that is lasting includes working toward building a more secure, sustainable, locally-based food system.
The idea that promoting purchase of local foods is not worthwhile because it’s “too expensive” is losing traction for many reasons these days. What’s really expensive is our dependence on petroleum and the so far endless costs associated with maintaining unlimited access to it. In addition, we certainly bear the costs of our overall lack of food security, rising healthcare costs, diminishing open space, loss of knowledge of how to provide for ourselves in the most basic way by not teaching new generations how to grow food, erosion of community values, and the effects of sending money out of the state that could benefit us far more if we closed the loop. (Some studies have shown that a dollar spent locally will recirculate as many as three times more in a community.) If the end results of spending more money locally are the potential for more jobs, more income tax revenue for the state, and more opportunity for re-investment in our communities, wouldn’t that actually be a more economical solution? It seems that greater economic stability and self-sufficiency are important pieces to this puzzle, and pieces we can continue to shift by embracing both the immediate and long-term value of investing in our local food system. After all, it is poverty that causes hunger in our society, and the only true path away from poverty at this point in human history is an economy that sustains our people while preserving our planet.
The scale is tipping, as food costs continue to rise globally. If we can find ways to invest in adequate infrastructure now – if we build this right – a local foods-supportive environment could be the more affordable option for us, and could be far more sustainable and secure than the current model we are hooked into. I don’t mean to say that we could ever or would even want to unhook completely, but we can and should do much better than we are currently, and in order to do this we need to implement strategies now that will support our long-term food security. We need school kitchen equipment that allows the ability to cook meals from raw ingredients instead of mainly heating pre-processed food, and curriculum embedded in schools to teach young people how to grow, cook and preserve food. We need storage capacity for fresh foods in food pantries. We need to recognize the tax benefits of working farms in our communities, and create policies that empower small to medium producers who make up much of our local food production base. We need to invest in processing capacity and coordinated transportation using green technology whenever possible. We need to work on every level to encourage a shift in cultural attitudes toward food – from something we buy in a box in a store from some manufacturing facility in a faraway place, to food that is valued and reflects our values, and is abundant and accessible to all.
Governor Baldacci, in addition to community buy-in and a commitment to solving hunger on a local level, we need systems level change. As I write this, we are still awaiting resolution of the Farm Bill, which even when it passes will still not resolve inherent problems in structure and will provide insufficient resources to address growing gaps in our food system. The good news is that we in Maine are uniquely positioned to succeed in this work. We have a rich culture around food and agriculture, and many organizations, businesses and other stakeholders who support the vision of improving access to Maine-produced food. To their credit, fishers and farmers and eaters around the state – on their own initiative and relying on their own ingenuity – are doing wonderful things to create markets, restore infrastructure, feed themselves and their neighbors, and build a food-secure future for their communities. With the will of our leaders and our citizens, we can build a better model, one that is unified in a vision centered on principles of conservation and promotes food security for all.
We must not forget that our food producers are also community members, some of our greatest assets, and many are living at or below the poverty level themselves. Their success is tied to ours, and if access to food is at the crux of this issue, we need to address the barriers from all directions and involve our producers in finding solutions.
In summary, I feel that along with investing energy in implementing immediate relief strategies, we would do best to protect our future citizens from hunger by committing to the long-term goals of a healthier, more just and sustainable food system.