Let's Grow Maine: A plan to end hunger by 2020

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“Why should there be hunger and deprivation in any land, in any city, at any table, when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life? There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will.”

— Martin Luther King Jr.

To achieve true economic security, Maine’s leaders must first ensure that every resident has food security. Right now, Maine ranks seventh in the nation and first in New England for food insecurity.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

What if we could eradicate hunger in Maine by 2020 for just $7 million/year? And what if the solution was so close to home we almost couldn’t see it?

That is precisely what the Let’s Grow Maine initiative is designed to do. A farm-to-family plan, Let’s Grow Maine will ensure consistent access to nutrition for low income families through a community sponsored agriculture-style distribution plan that puts Maine farmers at the center of the solution to hunger.

This is a bold proposal, but bold ideas are the cornerstone of how we move our state forward and invest in Maine people. In an agricultural state where we grow more food than we consume, the only thing keeping us from ending hunger is ourselves.

Food insecurity impacts 200,000 Mainers; most are children, seniors or people with disabilities. People experiencing hunger are at greater risk for diet-related diseases such as obesity, type-2 diabetes and heart disease because our country’s food system encourages people to eat a calorie-dense, nutrient-poor diet that is less expensive. Their health is at risk and diet related diseases are expensive to manage. Type-2 diabetes — a lifelong disease that is preventable but not curable — costs MaineCare $20 million per year, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Whether we realize it or not, we are paying the cost of economic inequality through our health care system. We could save money by reforming the approach to food security and focusing on the quantity, quality and availability of emergency food resources for nutritionally vulnerable families.

Ending hunger is not only the morally responsible choice for Maine, it is also a fiscally responsible strategy to tackle health care costs.

Feeding America estimates that Maine’s food-insecure households need 44 million pounds of food to achieve food security. That means 44 million pounds of food would end hunger in the state. Fortunately, Maine has a strong network of emergency food assistance organizations — food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, school pantries and backpack programs — that acquire and distribute about 30 million pounds of food annually. That means families are still lacking 14 million pounds of food per year.

Closing that shortfall is the key to eradicating hunger in Maine. Closing it with healthy options is the key to improving the health of our food-insecure neighbors.

Currently, Maine hunger-relief organizations contract with farmers to grow fruits and vegetables for distribution into the emergency food network. The average wholesale cost is $0.50 per pound. Let’s Grow Maine will close the meal gap by purchasing 14 million pounds of Maine-grown produce from local farms and deploying it through local CSAs and community distribution initiatives.

The costs for the program can be offset by closing the offshore tax haven loophole. Each year, corporations cost Maine roughly $10 million by cheating the system and hiding their money offshore. By closing that loophole, we can make sure every family, every child, every senior has enough food to eat.

The program will ensure that all Mainers have nutritious food, while also providing millions of dollars in new business for Maine farmers.

Emulating the eligibility requirements of existing means-tested and need-driven food security programs, eligible families can choose to receive a CSA-style grocery bag of Maine-grown produce. Participants in the program would have the option to choose between fresh produce, just like at a farmer’s market.

There are many issues that will take years, if not generations, to tackle as a state and as a nation — reinventing our struggling communities, reversing opioid trends, challenging systemic inequality and addressing global climate change.

Hunger is an entirely solvable problem in a state such as Maine where, unlike most states, the number of small farms is increasing.

Let’s grow the economy by growing food that helps kids in low income families grow up strong, healthy and food secure. Maine is an agricultural state. The solution to hunger is growing right in our backyard.

Diane Russell served eight years in the Maine House of Representatives. She is currently a Democratic candidate for Governor. Scott Hamann serves South Portland in the Maine House of Representatives.

Diane Russell

Scott Hamann

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