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October 25, 2017

Maine Food Insider: State launches 'waste not, want not' surplus food program

Courtesy / Office of Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine
Courtesy / Office of Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine
When the USDA grant was announced Oct. 5, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, said the program would facilitated a multi-faceted approach to Maine's food system, including getting unused food to the people who need it.

It's an age-old problem — getting unused potential food off the ground and to people who can consume it.

And, thanks in part to a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a 21st century solution is underway to tackle the issue across 10 Maine counties.

The Greater Portland Council of Governments has joined with partners ranging from Fork Food Lab to stores, farmers and other businesses to find a way to make the millions of pounds of edible food that goes to waste every year available to those who'd like local food but can't get it.

Making the process a lot easier is Spoiler Alert, an online surplus food marketplace that hooks up produce and other surplus food with those who want it.

"It's like online dating for food," said Jennifer Brennan, GPCOG's project manager for the program.

In Maine, an estimated 25 million pounds of edible produce goes to waste every year, Brennan said. Meanwhile, 16.4% of households in the state are food insecure — meaning their access to a quality diet is limited. The national average is 12%.

The Foodshed Program will cover a 100-mile radius around Portland, comprising 10 counties, hoping to scoop up as much of that produce, called food shed or seconds, as possible and put it to good use. The general goal is to increase local food consumption and bolster the state's economy.

Brennan said specific goals that will address the program's long-term impact are to:

  • Market 20% of the raw food that is wasted
  • Replace 10% of imported food products with Maine products
  • Replace $100 million worth of imported food products in households, restaurants and institutions with Maine products.

"That sounds like a lot," Brennan said. "But there's a tremendous amount of food wasted."

The council announced the grant and the program at the beginning of the month. Brennan said there are a lot of pieces to fit together before the program is fully operational.

Stakeholders to meet

The program's partners are meeting next week to begin the discussion. Partners include Food Fork Lab, The Farm Stand/Penny Jordan, CYON Business Solutions, Semler Consulting, Cultivating the New Economy, Rosemont Grocery and the Portland Food Co-op.

"There are so many pieces," Brennan said. Pieces that include stores, technical assistant, wholesalers, just to name a few.

Some of those pieces are already being put together. For instance, Fork Food Lab, a privately owned food business incubator, is offering scholarships to local food entrepreneurs and startups focused on using seconds to create new products. That goes towards the program's goal of ramping up the food production infrastructure.

Other parts — distribution is a big one — are still in the brainstorming stage.

Overcoming perceptions is also a goal. Often the seconds aren't pretty.

"We Americans are so prone to perfect-looking food," Brennan said. But the seconds taste just as good, are just healthy and work just as well in recipes. "A lot of it can be used."

The program is also going to address seafood. Brennan said there are many edible varieties of fish that either aren't harvested at all, or used for bait, because there isn't a market for them.

The council of governments is one of the state's seven economic development districts, and local food production and consumption has been part of the comprehensive strategy it must submit to the federal government.

'What are the gaps?'

In 2014, and again a year ago, the Portland area was named one of the country's Manufacturing Communities for Food Production. The designation not only validated the progress the area has made in food manufacturing, but supports long-term development strategies.

Brennan said the Foodshed Project, which is part of the Portland Region Found Foundry, was a natural outcome of the efforts that went before it.

"It got people asking, 'What are the gaps?'" he said.

When the USDA grant was announced Oct. 5, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, said, "This multi-faceted program will help increase the production, processing and sales of local food in a big way while helping restore what used to be a huge piece of the economy."

Brennan Tuesday said the program is a challenge, but an exciting one.

"We're hoping to put all the right pieces in place," he said.

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