NORWAY — An effort to ensure that local institutions buy local food may generate big dividends for area farmers while putting fresher food on people’s tables.

More than 50 buyers and farmers met Thursday afternoon in the basement meeting room of St. Catherine’s of Sienna Church to gauge the supply and demand in locally produced food, and to put buyers and sellers in touch with each other.

“I had no idea there were so many farms around. There’s a tremendous interest,” Spencer Ordway, associate director of Winona Camp, said. He also represents the Maine Youth Camp Foundation, which has more than 100 camps as members.

Dozens of farmers from towns such as Poland, Mexico, Rumford, West Paris and Harrison sat across the table from a dozen potential buyers, including officials from Oxford Hills School District and Regional School Unit 10 in Dixfield, summer camps, social service agencies and others to learn about each others’ needs.

Vegetable and livestock farmers along with bakers met with food purchasers.

“This is really the beginning of a new era for Oxford County,” Ellen Gibson of Stearns Hill Farm in West Paris said before the meeting. “We’re trying to connect producers with wholesale markets, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, restaurants so they have a bigger piece of the agricultural pie.”

In return, she said, farmers will have inroads with bigger markets and be able to increase their marketability by seeing what kinds of products the buyers need. “Hopefully it’s the beginning of a conversation that we have been facilitating for some time,” she said.

The associate director of a Bridgton summer camp, for instance, said the facility spends about a $1,000 each season to buy fresh tomatoes and lettuce for 340 campers from a camper’s parent who drives the produce from Shelburne, N.H., to Bridgton.

Jane Bates Gilmore of the University of Maine 4-H Camp at Bryant Pond said buying locally is more expensive but the benefits are great. “When we discussed it with the kids they paid attention,” she said of the ongoing conversation the camp facilitates with campers about locally grown food. “They really got into it and became very concerned they weren’t wasting (food).”

But despite the desire to buy more locally to provide a better quality, Gilmore said she is worried about the availability of locally produced food. “My concern is we go through so much food. We can’t scramble around looking for it,” she said.

“If you buy 100 pounds of hamburger, I’ll drive it,” said one farmer when asked by a buyer how he could ensure his produce would get from northern to southern Oxford County in a timely manner.

Jeanette Baldridge of LolliePapa Farm in West Paris said if she had a contract with a school district, for example, she would plant accordingly. “Right now the farmers are deciding what to plant in the summer,” she said.

Ordway, said he will be looking to buy not only fresh produce but also possibly beef from local farmers in the future, if details can be worked out.

“The meeting allowed me to have connections that I was unaware and unable to make locally,” he said.

Ordway said that camps, like those represented at the table, have to find a way to coordinate not only what produce they need, but how and when it could be delivered in order to determine their menus. Distribution will be a key issue to ensure the goods are delivered in a timely and efficient manner.

“We are willing to pay more to buy local as long as it can be competitive,” he said.

Ordway said he will be sending out information to the association members and expects there to be more conversations between the camps and the farmers as summer approaches.

Gibson said she sees the program as a two-fold process: First the marketing of the produce and second its delivery.”We need to get the produce to where it needs to go and match up needs,” she said.

Ken Morse of Healthy Oxford Hills, who facilitated the forum, said it was clear to him that there is a desire for more locally grown food but a need to determine what the needs are and how to match the buyers and growers.

More meetings will be held in the future, Morse said. He said his desire to see as much as 80 percent of food consumed in Oxford County grown locally is not unrealistic. But he said, “We have a long way to go.”

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