Produce from Maine farmers brings home-grown security

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Maine residents spend $2.5 billion on food, of which local producers get a mere 4 percent.

The cold stillness of an early spring night is pierced by the sound of multiple explosions. In a swift and coordinated attack, four rental trucks packed with ammonium nitrate, an agricultural fertilizer, and nitromethane, a highly volatile motor-racing fuel, are exploded on the bridges spanning the Piscataqua River, effectively severing Maine’s economic lifeline to the south.

Experts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are on the scene the next day to assess the damage and estimate that it will take anywhere from two to five months to rebuild the bridges. Within minutes, the state of Maine becomes the state of panic. Maine citizens rush in droves to their local grocery stores clearing the shelves of staples and perishables. Within days, the looting of stores, restaurants and warehouses breaks out in Portland, Lewiston and Biddeford, leading Gov. Baldacci to declare a state of emergency.

Sound farfetched? Maybe, but so would have the idea of 19 men armed with 99-cent boxcutters flying planes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center in the years leading up to the Sept. 11 tragedy. Similarly, most Americans would have never believed you last April if you had told them that later in the year a major hurricane would leave thousands of Americans stranded and hungry on rooftops for several days. If there is any lesson to draw from the events that have shaken the U.S. the past few years it is this: Expect the unexpected.

Over the course of the past six months, I have been part of a group of Mainers who have been doing just that with regard to food. The group I am referring to is the “Food Policy Working Group,” a temporary body charged by the Maine Legislature to make recommendations for a new state food policy. This policy, if enacted, would have many different goals, one being to help Maine prepare itself for the best and worst of times by building its capacity to feed itself.

Currently, roughly 20 percent of the calories consumed by Mainers come from Maine sources. The Food Policy Working Group has set an ambitious goal for the state by recommending that Maine food producers – both fishermen and farmers – be able to meet 80 percent of Maine’s caloric needs by the year 2020.

Our main motivation for recommending this has not been fear, but opportunity. Maine’s food economy is a sleeping giant. Currently, Maine residents spend over $50 million a week for food consumed at home. The vast majority of this money, however, goes to buy food grown and processed in other states and ultimately transported into Maine over the Piscataqua River Bridge. According to a state-sponsored study from 2002, Maine farmers are only capturing a mere 4 percent of the $2.5 billion Mainers spend each year on food, with the other 96 percent leaking out of the Maine economy.

Through intelligent policy in Augusta and enlightened food choices on the part of Maine citizens, Maine can plug this drain on our economy and reap all the benefits – health, economic, environmental and social – of a vibrant local food system. In our current age of uncertainty, surely this is not only the safest course of action, but the wisest.

Roger Doiron lives in Scarborough and works for the Eat Local Foods Coalition of Maine, a statewide nonprofit group working to put more Maine foods on Maine tables.

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