AUGUSTA — More Maine students would eat locally grown food for lunch under a bill designed to support the expansion of “food hubs,” where small-scale farmers can store, cut or clean their products and more easily distribute them to larger markets.

Critics question why question the government should fund food hubs, but supporters say the benefits are clear: Students will have access to fresher, healthier vegetables while small businesses that boost the local economy are promoted.

“I think this is a great opportunity for Maine to increase an aspect of our economy that is very much in keeping with Maine’s brand,” said Sen. Chris Johnson, a Democrat from Somerville who is sponsoring the measure. “We have a great opportunity to get fresh food into our schools.”

The bill, which the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee is scheduled to consider Thursday afternoon, would provide grants and create a $6 million bond issue to develop more food hubs, which offer a way for small producers to get their products to places like schools and grocery stores. It would also fund programs to train schools’ food service workers on the preparation and procurement of Maine-grown foods.

Mike Gold is helping develop a food hub in Unity that he says will feature storage space and a washing and packing line for small farms that may not be equipped to do the same efficiently in their own space. They also plan to help distribute the products to places like hospitals and schools, where demand for locally grown food has spiked in recent years, said Gold, farm viability program manager at Maine Farmland Trust.

In recent years, many small farms have grown and new ones have started in Maine thanks in part to the success of farmers markets, he said. The problem is that with a small population in the state, certain products in certain markets are beginning to hit a saturation point, he said.

“Therefore, there is a need for many of these farms to look at other opportunities to move products into the marketplace and food hubs are a very innovate and effective way of doing that,” Gold said.

But some farmers, who say there isn’t space for more aggregators in the local food market, are opposing the measure.

Lisa Turner, who owns Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport with her husband, Ralph, said food hubs already are operating throughout the state and she doesn’t understand why the government needs to get involved.

“Why is the government deciding that aggregation is the one right way for local produce to be marketed?” she said.

Turner said she supports the idea of putting more local food in schools, but there are other ways to do it. She suggested that the funds in the bill be used to support a liaison in the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry that could connect farms and schools.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under:

Daily Headlines

  • Sign up and get the top stories to begin the day delivered to your inbox at 6 a.m.