Weekly Observer
January 18, 2013

Farmers, buyers talk produce, hunger

By Andrew Rice - Keepmecurrent.com

John Tibbetts and Michael Sabo
John Tibbetts, right, from Tibbetts Family Farm speaks with Michael Sabo from Southern Maine Medical Center at Wednesday’s first Meet the (local) Buyers meeting.

An initiative aimed at bringing farm-fresh produce into local schools is becoming increasingly important because of the rising number of area students who qualify for free or reduced school lunches.

“A growing number of students depend on their school for food,” said Kristine Jenkins, the coordinator of the Farm to School effort of the Partners for a Hunger-Free York. “There are about 10,000 kids in York County that qualify.”

On Wednesday, representatives from regional schools and farms were in Springvale at the UMaine Cooperative Extension’s Anderson Learning Center for the first-ever Meet the (local) Buyers Social. Also on hand were other interested parties from outside York County, from the Falmouth Food Department to the New Hampshire Farm to School initiative. Multiple York County farms, including Piper Knoll, Clover Hill, Rivard, Spiller and Tibbetts Family Farm, were also represented. The purpose of the event was to provide an atmosphere for local farmers, school officials, and others to meet and talk about ways to bring more healthy produce into York County schools. The Partners for a Hunger-Free York County believes that because of the growing number of students who are “food insecure,” involving local farms is a great way to meet those demands.

“We want to make sure that those meals are as healthy as possible,” Jenkins said. “And also we want to support the local economy and local farms.”

The social provided an outlet, led by Jenkins, for buyers and sellers to voice concerns and opinions about bringing local food into schools. One key concern voiced was food safety regulations, including U.S. Department of Agriculture certifications used in public schools.

Nylah Lyman, the sales manager for Farm Fresh Connection, a marketing and distribution source for Maine farms, says that their service to public schools is limited because of food safety concerns. “We can only provide foods with minimal processing,” she said at the meeting. “We don’t sell schools things like lettuce.”

Lyman said that schools mostly seek items such as apples, but most at the social said they would like to find ways to see a broader range of produce introduced.

Holly Hartley, the director of school nutrition for Sanford schools, said that in order to begin a push toward using local produce, a community-wide campaign must be launched aimed at raising nutrition awareness.

“There’s a whole community that needs to value sourcing local foods,” Hartley said during the discussion.

Michael Sabo, the food service director at Southern Maine Medical Center, stressed the need to bridge the gap between healthy eating habits and supporting local foods by educating children at a younger age.

“We can change the culture while supporting the food by teaching healthy eating from a younger age,” he said.

Other input came from farmers, who voiced concerns about the inconsistencies of farming during Maine’s harsh seasons, and what would happen to potential contracts with schools if a harvest were low.

“There’s challenges for farmers to make this work,” said Lyman farmer John Tibbetts. “There’s a learning curve, and sometimes it can be a guessing game.”

Partners for a Hunger-Free York County was created in 2010 through combining the efforts of many of the region’s existing nonprofits, from York County Shelter Programs, Food Rescue, Good Shepherd Food Bank and more. According to the website, these organizations “came together to discuss evidence of increasing hunger in York County, and ways to address it.”

Jenkins said the idea for having a Meet the Buyers event stemmed from a number of their meetings during the last year, which focused on encouraging schools to use local produce and meat.

“A lot of the farms didn’t know how to get in touch with the schools, and vice versa,” Jenkins said. “It’s to try to get over that first stage of getting to know each other.”

The idea for holding the meeting in January was also deliberate, as it falls strategically during the months where farmers are planning for their next season of planting, and schools are in their planning and budget season.