- Sustainable Communities: community development, community planning
The demand and desire for local foods in Maine is outpacing processing ability. Schools and institutions that want to serve local foods do not have the manpower to handle the prep work involved with whole unprocessed foods. Farmers who want to extend their market access either through preserving or processing food are lacking the needed infrastructure and business skills to do so. Bridging these gaps is imperative to the future of Maine’s food economy and to the viability of our local farmers. Farmers face a limited and unpredictable profit margin for whole foods. Large institutions want year round supply of products only seasonally available. Many farmers have expressed a desire to create value added (including preserved) products through processing which would both increase revenue and meet the varied needs of customers. Affordable and accessible commercial kitchen space is extremely limited and is essential for these ventures to succeed. Schools in Maine have demonstrated a growing interest, by both food service administrators and students, in local foods. Many districts have received training in sourcing local foods and developing seasonal menus yet they are not staffed to assume the increased prep work involved in buying foods from sources other than bulk suppliers. In order to provide the most nutritious food possible to students schools struggle to balance time and money. They cannot create the infrastructure needed to bring local foods into their programs despite proven increased interest and consumption by students when local foods are served. Communities throughout Maine need access to high quality food and need to use their food dollars to build sustainability. Maine’s resources are spread throughout a wide geographic area and processing facilities which used to be valuable partners with local farmers no longer exist. The skills and interest in farming, preserving, and processing are not being transferred to a new generation of Mainer, further reducing the options for economic growth and farmland preservation. Groups must come together to collaborate and create sustainability in local food systems in order for suppliers to address the growing needs of their communities. Creative solutions using shared resources can help to leverage our existing assets and help producers, consumers and a potential labor force come together in a way that strengthens all of us and our communities.
Project objectives from proposal:
Recipes for Success: Empowering Farmers, Leveraging Resources, Building Community, creates a framework for sustainable collaboration in communities throughout the northeast. Building upon the already existing resources of school kitchens, farmers will be able to increase revenue through value added products, schools will be able to defray the cost of adding healthful local foods to their menus and job training will help to create future farmers and food business entrepreneurs.
School kitchens are an underutilized community resource. Well equipped and certified for commercial food production, they sit idle during most of the growing season and during many hours during the rest of the year. This despite the fact that 1) producers cite lack of access to processing facilities as a key barrier to selling to institutional buyers and to selling outside the growing season and 2) schools themselves tend to require a more processed product than what leaves the farm.
As part of Recipes for Success: Empowering Farmers, Leveraging Resources, Building Community, long-time collaborator and new Portland Food Service Director Ron Adams has agreed to pilot a program in which school food service directors are trained in allowing underutilized school kitchens to become shared use kitchens. Growers and food entrepreneurs would gain access to the space to preserve food or create value-added or processed foods. Schools could utilize revenue from kitchen rentals to support the purchase of local foods.
Along with kitchen access, farmers would have access to trainings in recipe development, preserving, and other important product development know-how through project partners University of Maine Cooperative Extension, MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association), First Course, and Local Sprouts.
Importantly, this project builds on extensive research and networking already conducted by several of the project partners, most especially MOFGA and PROP. These partners have already brought together producers and food service professionals to assess barriers and to identify the products most easily packaged in a form accessible to school food services. This information—published as “The MOFGA 20”—identifies for producers those products with demonstrated demand.
To meet the immediate needs of schools wanting pre-processed local foods, and to prepare for a second season when farmers will be ready to increase production on their value added products, Cultivating Communities will incorporate a youth job skills training program at the pilot kitchens. Youth will receive culinary training creating even greater potential for economic opportunities and future businesses.