|This Maine Food Pyramid incorporates the Maine Local Twenty foods that can feed our state’s population. Illustration by Tim Nason, Abby Sadauckas and Cheryl Wixson.
By Cheryl Wixson
As a foodie, I’ve often contemplated the ideal of a local food system including products fished, foraged or grown in the Blue Hill peninsula area. In developing an organic marketing strategy for MOFGA, my work became focused on a broader question: Can Maine feed itself? Russell Libby, our executive director, has said for years that Maine produces the calories to feed its citizens, but primarily as potatoes. As a student of food science and human nutrition, I was intrigued … yes, but can Maine really feed itself?
The short answer is yes, of course. Reading our history shows that generations of Maine people, including Native Americans, sourced adequate food to feed their peoples a nutritious daily diet – but how does that translate to feeding ourselves today?
The first step to answering this question was to list the varied Maine foods and their seasonality. The list keeps growing, as we can enjoy foods from our organic farms, conventional agriculture crops or commodity crops, seafood, dairy, livestock and wild and foraged foods, such as mushrooms, fiddleheads and rhubarb.
For marketing, MOFGA decided to focus on 20 foods that Maine can produce for its citizens to enjoy all year. In selecting these 20 foods, the criteria varied. Generally we chose foods that could be produced or stored for a majority of the year and that balanced fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy, sweeteners or energy foods, and grains and legumes. The list became the Maine Local Twenty, and, to provide an interesting, nutritionally balanced diet for our 1.3 million residents, I used the USDA food pyramid as a model to incorporate those 20 into a Maine food pyramid (Figure 1).
Two fruits head the list: wild blueberries and apples. Rich in antioxidants, wild blueberries have grown naturally for thousands of years. North America’s earliest inhabitants used the tiny berries, fresh and dried, for flavor, nutrition and healing qualities. Today frozen blueberries are available all year. Maine produces around 65 pounds of wild blueberries per person per year, enough for our citizens to enjoy over 1/2 cup or one serving every day!
Apples are the country’s second most popular fruit. The average American consumes about 20 pounds per year of apples and 1.8 gallons of juice. Since the early 1600s, apples have been an important crop in Maine. Between 1916 and 1920, Maine grew about 3.5 million bushels (147 million pounds) annually, according to Clarence Day in Farming in Maine, 1860-1940. Although Maine lost more than half its bearing apple trees between 1920 and the great freeze of 1933-34, the industry transitioned and continues to prosper. Current production exceeds consumption: Maine produces about 26 pounds of apples per person per year.
The vegetables on the Maine Local Twenty include potatoes, carrots, beets and beet greens, greens (salad and braising), tomatoes (field and greenhouse), garlic, cabbage, onion and winter squash.
Potatoes have been Maine’s principal cash crop for well over a century, with the state producing more than adequate spuds to feed itself. About 68 percent of the Maine potato crop is for the processing market, predominantly french fries and potato chips.
Nutritionists have long recognized the importance of Maine potatoes (and apples) to the health of its citizens. In “Food Preparation for 4-H Club Members” (University of Maine Cooperative Extension bulletin No. 342, February, 1952), potatoes and apples were in Group III of the Daily Seven food groups, identified as foods for energy and general regulators (fiber). The bulletin advises eating two to three servings per day! We still produce that much now.
Carrots, pumpkins and winter squash are important sources of beta-carotenes, the orange-yellow pigments the body converts to vitamin A. Vitamin A is important in vision, the immune system, bone and body growth, normal cell development and reproduction. Maine farmers grow dozens of carrot varieties, including types for winter and early spring harvest, and winter storage, making carrots accessible 12 months of the year. Several varieties of winter squash and pumpkins store well and may be enjoyed for several months.
Beets are an important source of betacyanins (red and yellow pigments), antioxidants that reduce risks of cancer and heart disease. Beet greens provide iron and vitamin A. Beets and beet greens can be grown, harvested and stored for enjoyment year round.
Long before greenhouse cultivation made local greens widely available, our great-grandparents consumed a great deal of cabbage. A staple that has sustained populations for ages, Maine cabbage can be available for much of the year. Braising and salad greens, such as spinach, kale, chard, beet greens, pac choi and other Asian varieties, can be cultivated for 12 months and are top sources of lutein, the main antioxidant in the eye.
Americans eat almost 90 pounds of tomatoes per year, fresh and processed into salsas, sauces, juices and more. The tomato is the major source of vitamin C on the Maine Food Pyramid. Since Backyard Farms’ greenhouses opened in Madison in 2007, Mainers have been able to enjoy tomatoes all year.
No home cook or chef’s repertoire would be complete without garlic and onions. Nutritionally, garlic (“Russian penicillin”) is a star. Onion is one of a trio of vegetables (with carrots and celery) comprising a mirepoix, a foundation of French cuisine. With other members of the Allium family – chives, leeks, walking onions, garlic scapes and shallots – I stretch the seasonal culinary horizon and use what Maine produces all year.
Dairy products have long been staples in Maine. I have many fond memories of Oaknole, my family’s Winslow, Maine, registered Jersey farm. Maine milk production meets Maine milk consumption, about 2 gallons per person per month. Maine milk, butter, buttermilk, ice cream and cheese, from cows, sheep and goats, are accessible in many markets.
Maine chickens seem to lay eggs all year also! More and more communities allow backyard chickens.
Ground meat from beef, poultry, lamb, pork, goats and rabbits is available fresh and frozen all year. Consumers are increasingly seeking local, organic ground meat because of food safety concerns, so this market is growing. Fresh and frozen Maine seafood is also plentiful – especially shrimp and shrimp meat, lobster, mussels and clams.
Two sweeteners or energy foods, honey and maple syrup, are on the Maine Local Twenty. Both are readily available and have the capacity for greater market penetration. Honey and maple syrup play an important role in the Maine Food Pyramid as alternatives to white cane sugar (much of it grown from genetically engineered beets last year) and high fructose corn syrup.
Dry beans and legumes are superb sources of protein, fiber and folate. I love their colors, textures and names: ‘Jacob’s Cattle,’ ‘Midnight Black Turtle,’ ‘Calypso,’ ‘Red Cranberry’ and ‘Tiger Eye.’ Grains such as wheat, rye, spelt, oats, buckwheat and corn are part of the foundation of the Maine Food Pyramid. Although Maine has enough land to produce grains for its citizens, production is currently limited.
The Maine Local Twenty is an exciting resource for farmers, consumers, educators and policy makers to use in discussions and strategies for developing food security in Maine. For the consumer, the list identifies Maine foods that neighborhood markets and restaurants could carry all year. Ask for them!
MOFGA’s new community Web site, www.mofga.net, features the Maine Local Twenty, seasonality and availability information, growing tips, storage information and recipes.
In my quest to determine whether the foods that Maine produces will provide citizens with an interesting and tasty diet, my family is taking the local challenge and trying to live on these foods for a year. Read about our menus, recipes, developments and disasters, and share your comments at www.cherylwixsonskitchen.org.
The Maine Local Twenty can be used as a crop selection tool for farmers and as a blueprint to identify barriers in processing, storage, distribution and marketing. MOFGA will continue discussing these barriers and opportunities with farmers, distributors and policy makers as it works to get more Maine food on Maine plates.
About the author: Cheryl Wixson is MOFGA’s organic marketing consultant. When not playing in the Common Kitchen in Unity, she is at home in Stonington, Maine. She welcomes questions and comments at 852-0899 or [email protected].