LEWISTON — Feeding hungry Mainers ought to be as important to policymakers as buying heating oil for low-income Mainers or filling their prescriptions, the leader of the Muskie Institute for Public Service said Thursday.

“Access is a growing problem in Maine,” said Mark Lapping, executive director of the institute at the University of Southern Maine. He cited recent U.S. Department of Agriculture numbers that said one in five of the state’s children under 16 live in homes described as “food insecure.”

“That means that the parents or the guardians of that household do not know where the next meal is necessarily coming from,” Lapping said.

In a Great Falls Forum talk at the Lewiston Public Library on Thursday, Lapping criticized the shrinking of the state’s farming sector and consumers’ over-reliance on big grocers and food that’s too often grown and processed far away.

“We are at the end of the food pipeline,” Lapping said. “We produce only 20 percent of the food that’s consumed in the state of Maine. Eighty percent of it comes from somewhere else.”

The notion runs against the image Mainers have of themselves, he said.

“We pride ourselves on being really independent, tough and rough Yankees,” he said. “It seems to me it’s hard to be independent, tough and rugged when you’re dependent on someone else to heat your home and someone else to feed you.”

Folks here were once self-sufficient, he said. 

The grass could support a cattle industry. Wheat and corn were cash crops on local farms. Poultry was big business all over. Many seaside towns had canneries. And much of the bread baked for soldiers in the Civil War was made in Maine, he said.

“You name it, we did it,” he said. “There was a time when almost every home had a small orchard or a few apple trees.”

Lapping, the son of a Vermont dairy farmer, has written extensively on land use and planning. He has also taught courses on sustainable development and food systems.

In one of his classes, he used to direct students to hang out at local grocery stores and watch people who bought food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Students often saw what too many policymakers don’t: that the people who receive aid must work to make it last, he said. By the end of the month, many were buying inexpensive foods such as pasta and adding cans of soup for a bit of flavor.

“There are few things as intimate as what we put in our mouths,” Lapping said.

Without food security, people are scared and embarrassed, he said. “I never met anyone who wanted to be on food stamps.”

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