Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque talks Tuesday with Kristen Miale, president of the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn, about food insecurity in Auburn and what might be done to help low-income residents get locally sourced produce. Sun Journal photo by Steve Collins

AUBURN — To preserve a hunger relief program that buys more than $1 million worth of fresh produce from Maine farms each year, state lawmakers are weighing whether to include funding for it for another two years.

Without the allocation, Good Shepherd Food Bank’s program would have to be reduced drastically, Kristen Miale, the charity’s president, told legislators recently.

Miale said Tuesday at the charity’s Auburn warehouse the Mainers Feeding Mainers program is nearly “a perfect project” because it uses state cash to provide food to hungry residents, while bolstering 75 family farms throughout the state.

One of the participating farmers, Eugene Ripley of Ripley Farm in Dover-Foxcroft, called the program “one of the brightest spots in the local agricultural economy” and pleaded for its survival.

Fresh garlic ready is ready to be handed out to needy Mainers through Good Shepherd Food Bank’s statewide distribution network. Sun Journal photo by Steve Collins

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque, who is pushing for more family farms, said the request is a small one “in the grand scheme of things” and clearly worth funding because its “benefits far outweigh the costs.”

The Maine House of Representatives and Senate have indicated their support for allocating $1.5 million in each of the next two years to keep the program funded, but it is not clear whether the money will be available.

The measure has some political clout behind it.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who sponsored the bill, told colleagues: “Nutritional food to eat should be a pretty basic, nonpartisan goal. My hope is that this bill puts us on the right track to achieve that end.”

Jackson said in Maine one in five children and nearly one in four seniors “do not have adequate access to nutritious food and are at risk of going hungry.”

He said his bill “seeks to address this challenge head-on” by providing funds for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to contract with a nonprofit focused on hunger “to engage in a statewide effort to reduce hunger.”

Good Shepherd, virtually certain to administer the effort, provides about 25 million meals annually to 175,000 Mainers, distributed through local food pantries that fill up at its Auburn and Hampden facilities. It has a goal of wiping out hunger in Maine by 2025.

One of the ways it seeks to help is through deals with people, such as Keena Tracy, who owns and operates Little Ridge Farm in Lisbon Falls.

Tracy told lawmakers her farm has partnered with Good Shepherd since 2013 to provide “healthy, local food for food pantries and meal sites” through the Mainers Feeding Mainers program.

“Good Shepherd contracts with us ahead of the growing season and purchases our crops at a fair price,” Tracy said, a deal that last year led to its purchase of more than 18,000 pounds of top-grade carrots that “helped nourish Mainers who were having trouble making ends meet.”

Watermelons are stored in the cooler at Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn on Tuesday. They will be sent to local food pantries and distributors to help struggling Mainers eat healthy. Sun Journal photo by Steve Collins

Checkerberry Farm in Parkman provided more than 26,000 pounds of onions and cabbage.

Jason Kafka, who owns and operates the farm with his wife, Barbara, told lawmakers setting a contract ahead of the growing season for a fair price provides “a degree of certainty” that allows Checkerberry to offer additional hours for employees and purchase needed equipment.

“We also enjoy the knowledge that our neighbors in need are getting the same nutrient-dense food as the shoppers at Whole Foods,” he said.

“This program is a win-win for all involved,” Tracy said. “It allows our farm to be part of the solution to ending hunger in Maine, while also receiving payment for the work we do.”

Last year, Good Shepherd said it spent $750,000 that helped 71 farms and sourced 2.1 million pounds of produce, grains, milk, eggs and cheese for pantries and providers throughout Maine.

Miale said that without the new funding, pantries won’t be able to keep supplying top-quality produce.

Cauliflower is ready to give away at the Good Shepherd Food Bank last summer. Sun Journal file photo

“Instead, once again they will receive the seconds, the castoffs, the past-its-prime food,” she said. “And we will have to explain that funding ran out, and we can no longer purchase fresh, Maine-grown produce for them.”

Ellen Stern Griswold, policy and research director for the Maine Farmland Trust, said the program helps Maine’s farms.

“The best way to protect farmland is to keep farmers in business,” Griswold told lawmakers. “By supporting the economic success of many farmers in Maine and providing a valuable market opportunity, Mainers Feeding Mainers is an important program for the state’s agricultural economy.”

The coordinator of the Gray Community Food Pantry, Donna Rand, told legislators her organization, which gives out food twice a month, has benefited from getting produce from Good Shepherd at no cost for the Mainers Feeding Mainers program.

“Our clients love getting fresh produce and often tell us how much they appreciate it,” she said.

“We know how important it is for our clients to get fresh produce because many of them have health issues,” she said. “By eating fresh local food they are contributing to better health.”

“Were Mainers Feeding Mainers to run out of funding this year, it would be a devastating blow to hunger-relief efforts in Maine,” she said.

Tomatoes are ready for distribution at the Good Shepherd Food Bank last summer. Sun Journal file photo

The program, started in 2010 with donations from private foundations, has been funded for the past three years through a one-time $3 million grant from the Fund for a Healthy Maine.

Miale said the program needs a firmer footing — and a recognition that buying produce from Maine farmers helps the agricultural community as well as those who need the food.

She said private donors are more likely to insist Good Shepherd buy the cheapest food, usually from California, rather than looking for local options that keep the money in Maine.

Miale said the state does not need to start a new program to help farmers or feed struggling Mainers. It can stick with one that is working well with a proven track record, she said.

The reality, Miale said, is buying food is becoming ever more important for Good Shepherd because retailers donate less than in the past because they have become more efficient and have less waste.

She said the cash to make those purchases has to come from somewhere.

“It costs a lot of money to give away food for free,” Miale said.

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