Land Trusts Fostering Food Resilience
Nourishing food should be critical staple in every Maine kitchen, but it is not. One in four Maine children struggles to get enough to eat.
The number of Maine residents who cannot consistently afford healthy food is growing. Many of those facing food insecurity are working poor who contend with low and stagnant wages, chronic underemployment and costly basic expenses.
Food insecurity undermines both physical and mental health. Cheap, empty calories often take the place of wholesome foods, aggravating conditions like obesity and diabetes. Hunger can also undermine learning, sabotaging students’ capacity for concentration and cognitive development.
In an effort to free Mainers from food insecurity, Good Shepherd Food Bank – the state’s largest hunger relief organization – works with 600 food pantries, schools, churches and other social service providers. Now Kristen Miale, Good Shepherd’s visionary and energetic president, is expanding the circle.
“We’re starting to see worlds converging,” she recently told 400 attendees at the annual Maine Land Conservation Conference in a keynote speech on building community food systems. Maine has 90 land trusts that could revitalize local agricultural production, helping the state regain its former title as New England’s breadbasket.
In the coming decade, an estimated 400,000 acres of Maine farmland will change hands as aging farmers retire. For younger farmers to take over, they need affordable acreage. Land trusts can help facilitate this transition by purchasing agricultural easements.
Easements protect farmland in perpetuity while compensating farmers for the development rights they voluntarily relinquish. Funding through the Maine Community Foundation is helping more land trusts obtain grants to acquire farmland easements.
Lee Dassler is executive director of Western Foothills Land Trust, one of many local trusts benefiting from this program administered through Maine Farmland Trust. She’s excited to be working on two farmland easements, increasing “Maine’s capacity to feed itself.” Maine Farmland Trust has created “very sophisticated metrics to determine priority farms,” she says, keyed to both acreage and the presence of prime agricultural soils.
Kennebec Estuary Land Trust is completing its second farmland easement and has just begun managing an outdoor classroom garden adjoining a school in Bath. Working with Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust and other regional partners, the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust established the Merrymeeting Food Council, a collective effort to support a resilient local food system. Looking at land in terms of food security, says the land trust’s executive director Carrie Kinne, “pushes the conversation. You end up talking about everything.”
“Everything” is precisely what Miale is working to manage, looking beyond food production to storage and distribution. Good Shepherd is converting a huge former newspaper printing plant in Hampden into a cold-storage facility for Maine root crops, as well as perishables like meat and dairy.
This facility will supply fresh foods to needy residents in northern and eastern Maine, while boosting local agriculture. Greater food production requires adequate cold storage, trucking and – most fundamentally – a reliable market. Miale wants to tap the extensive purchasing power of New England’s food banks to generate consistent demand for Maine farm products.
Good Shepherd already contracts with farmers to supply fresh produce for the food bank network. Its Mainers Feeding Mainers program guarantees a predictable revenue stream for farmers while offering flexibility (such as taking misshapen produce or a crop substitute). Last year, the program supplied 2 million pounds of local produce to Maine food banks, which Miale estimates is more than the volume of all of Maine’s farmers markets combined.
Beyond structural changes in production and distribution, Miale advocates approaches to hunger relief that go beyond providing basic food needs: “It’s not as simple as ‘go get a job,’ ” she says, when people are trapped in a web of circumstances that makes them feel devalued. People in poverty, like everyone else, need, in her words, to “feel safe, loved and have a sense of belonging.”
Engagement with the land can offer that sense of connection, Miale noted. Just minutes after her keynote ended, conference organizers presented an award to Tom Settlemire, who has helped his home community of Brunswick immeasurably through a property he was instrumental in saving – Crystal Spring Farm.
Under Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust ownership, this 320-acre property supports a vibrant farmers market, a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation, and an organic community garden offering 80 plots and a solar-powered irrigation system.
The Tom Settlemire Community Garden has a plot dedicated to providing fresh produce – about 3,000 pounds each season – to the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program. Recently, the land trust created a scholarship fund that offers garden space, seeds, mentoring and even cooking advice to those in need who want to learn how to grow food.
The seeds that land trusts are planting to strengthen community food resilience could bear great fruit for Maine. “Convince me that you have a seed there,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, “and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
© Marina Schauffler, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.