Khadija Hilowle waits on a customer at her farm stand in Kennedy Park in Lewiston on Tuesday afternoon. She was one of two vendors who braved the cold on the last scheduled outdoor farm market of the season. Hilowle grows her produce in Lisbon but lives in Lewiston and was happy to learn about a plan to secure a permanent year-round home for the Lewiston Farmers’ Market and a possible neighborhood grocery store in the Tree Streets neighborhood. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — A plan finalized earlier this year that aims to strengthen the local food economy was officially launched Tuesday, and those involved said progress has already been made.

The “Local Foods, Local Places” plan aims to boost access to local food, expand market opportunities and infrastructure for farm and food businesses, and integrate local food and agriculture into city planning and economic development strategies, among other goals.

At the virtual launch Tuesday, officials went into more detail on the specific “action steps” being taken, including a search for a permanent year-round venue for the Lewiston Farmers’ Market and a cooperatively owned neighborhood grocery store in the Tree Streets neighborhood.

The rollout was originally scheduled for April, but was postponed due to the pandemic. The Zoom discussion Tuesday aimed to show that progress on the plan has already been made, and that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of a strong local food system.

The plan was developed through St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, with assistance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the program.

Since its development last year during two community workshops attended by more than 80 people, the effort has rallied several stakeholders who are taking on separate aspects of the plan. Several of those individuals spoke Tuesday, showing a broad and organized effort.

The panel included Joshua Nagine, who is taking on the work of securing a permanent site for the Lewiston Farmers’ Market. He said a few potential sites centrally located near downtown Lewiston-Auburn have been identified, and discussions are taking place between the city and private owners. For most of the year, the market is held in the parking lot at Bates Mill No. 5, but the effort is looking to secure an “indoor-outdoor” site.

Shanna Cox, president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, who also served on the plan’s steering committee, said a permanent venue would “increase sales and broaden (the) customer base” of farmers.

Cox also emphasized a central piece of the plan that looks to make food and agriculture “a defining brand” for Lewiston-Auburn. She asked attendees to imagine “all your favorite restaurants using local food.”

She said the group hopes to develop a request-for-proposals for a consultant to create a “local foods/agriculture brand identity” for the Twin Cities, but emphasized that the effort would need to be community-driven, which might prove difficult during a pandemic.

Emmy Andersson, a cooperative business developer for the Cooperative Development Institute, said she is conducting a feasibility study to assess the demand and need for a commercial kitchen and cooperatively run local food store in the Tree Streets neighborhood.

She said Tuesday that a potential site has been located, and that an application for funding will be submitted in December.

Julia Harper, coordinator of the Good Food Council of Lewiston-Auburn, said Tuesday that as the pandemic has interrupted global food supply chains, it’s now even more critical to become less dependent on outside sources of food.

“A strong local food system is recognized as an asset and form of resilience for a community,” she said.

Harper said officials hope the action plan will have a “lifespan” of between three to five years.

Other pieces of the plan call for specific policy initiatives, which require support from city government officials in both cities.

Shelley Norton, a land use planner for the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, said she has been developing language for an “urban agriculture” ordinance, which would make it easier for urban residents to maintain greenhouses and gardens.

Camille Parish, a member of the Good Food Council, said she’s hoping to ensure that food and farm sectors are represented and integrated into Auburn’s 2020-2030 comprehensive plan, which is expected to be complete by mid-2021.

However, it’s unclear whether the effort will be able to achieve official support from both city governments.

While the Lewiston City Council unanimously adopted the plan in June, the Auburn City Council in July tabled the discussion for three months after several councilors criticized the plan for not putting enough focus on Auburn.

The decision came despite comments from Auburn City Manager Phil Crowell regarding the development process behind the plan, which included Auburn city and school staff.

Auburn Councilor Katie Boss took issue that fellow councilors didn’t want to support a document that was created for the broader region, as opposed to just Auburn.

“A food system goes beyond municipal boundaries,” she said. “In order to be effective we need to be thinking outside just our own boundaries.”

Following the decision, Harper said implementation of the plan does not hinge on receiving council support, but that having an official endorsement from elected officials in Lewiston and Auburn is helpful to show broad community support for the work.

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