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April 18, 2018

Mainebiz Food Insider: Franklin County targets growing 'local food roots'

Photo / Greater Franklin Food Council
Photo / Greater Franklin Food Council
Sue Jones, Farmington postmistress, speaks at the 2017 Greater Franklin Food Summit.

Last April, a group of nonprofits got together in Farmington to talk about local food insecurity.

"In our work we see a lot of hungry people," said Lisa Laflin, director of the United Way Tri-Valley Area.

A lot sprang from that first food summit — including recognition that the Franklin County effort was about more than food insecurity, but also about how to connect local resources, including farmers to people who need food, and how to reduce food waste.

Something else grew out of the summit — namely, the realization that many organizations and people were tackling the issue from different directions.

That meeting last April became a catalyst for this year's Growing Roots Food Summit, a weeklong event.

The event begins Sunday, April 29, with a lunch, discussion and discussion about what local Catholic parishes are doing to combat hunger in one of the state's poorest counties. It also includes the Greater Franklin Food Summit and a screening of the film "Just Eat It!" and ends Saturday, May 5, with the annual Fiddlehead Festival.

Laflin said Growing Roots is an umbrella for the separate events, and each event is being organized individually by the group that it originated with.

The series came out of a yearlong discussion, said Erica Emery, of Rustic Roots Farm in Farmington, who's helping Laflin get the word out. "We very purposely moved it to be aligned with the Fiddlehead Festival," she said.

The pair said the "cross-pollination" of the events helps underline that the issues surrounding hunger and food aren't limited to one issue, and also brings together different groups who have been working on issues separately.

'Ripe for food insecurity'

Franklin County has a population of around 30,000. Of those. around 20% are over 65 and 14% live below the poverty level. Both of those percentages are above the state averages of 19% and 12% respectively.

The combination of an elderly population, low-income households and the fact the county is largely rural, which means a lack of resources and inability to access them, makes the county "ripe for food insecurity," Emery said.

"We're one of the oldest counties in the state and one of the poorest counties," Emery said.

"There are people who may not identify as food secure, but they may not have access to fresh veggies," she said.

A lot of the effort, from food pantries and the Catholic parishes work, to farm programs, is about connecting people with resources that already exist.

Programs in place range from senior farm shares and the "Plant a Row" for the hungry program initiated by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, to the Healthy County Coalition healthy eating programs to kids, to Meals for Wheels, run by SeniorsPlus.

The local Catholic parishes not only have food outreaches, but also the SEARCH program, which connects volunteers with isolated seniors.

But each program also has issues reaching the people they would like to — Meals on Wheels, for instance, has a waiting list.

The bottom line, Laflin said, is there are hungry people walking in the doors of many of the organizations that are involved with Growing Roots.

"Not just seniors," she said. "We have university students walking in here who don't know where their next meal is coming from. That's a wakeup call."

'People who get things done'

Another attribute of Franklin County, said Emery, "Is that it has a population made of people who want to get things done."

"People find there's a problem, and say, 'then let's do something about it," she said. "It's a really supportive community."

But Laflin said it's also important to people to see outcomes that work.

"I'm a glass half-full kind of person," she said. "I don't want to keep going and talking about what the problems are, but rather say, we've put up some great scaffolding here, but need help getting the building finished."

Both stressed that much of the summit is to connect people and get the word out about what is already happening around food insecurity, local food and food waste.

Groups that make up the Greater Franklin Food Council include the Healthy Community Coalition; United Way of the Tri-Valley Area; mainefoodatlas.org ; Rustic Roots Farm; Catholic Charities SEARCH program; and the Care and Share Food Closet. Growing Roots is supported with funding from the Natural Resources Council of Maine and The Maine Network of Food Councils.

Both Emery and Laflin said the effort is already paying off. The mission of Emery's farm is to build a local food community through farm shares. Laflin is director of the local United Way. Yet, despite how small Farmington and Franklin County is, the two had never met until groups got together around last year's food summit.

They say the effort has been a happy revelation to many who are trying to attack the county's hunger issue from different angles.

"It's just so exciting to meet people willing to roll up their sleeves and get things done," Emery said.

Laflin said that different entities also bring in different resources -- the Maine Food Atlas, for instances, which pinpoints community food assets.

"We don't have to reinvent the wheel," she said. "The goal is to encourage everyone to think about food more [as a local issue], it's not just about food insecurity."

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