By Abigail W. Adams
Christine Henson, Karen Kleinkopf, and Virginia Hall (left to right) present the work of FARMS to provide a hands-on education in the preparation of locally grown produce at the “Local Food, Local Hunger” forum Saturday, March 7. (Abigail Adams photo)
Mark Winne, author of “Closing the Food Gap,” was the keynote speaker at the “Local Food, Local Hunger” forum Saturday, March 7. He spoke of the broad causes for food insecurity and advocated for increased involvement in public food security policy. (Abigail Adams photo)
Nearly 15 percent of Maine’s population lives with food insecurity, keynote speaker Mark Winne told attendants of the “Local Food, Local Hunger” community forum.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as an economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.
Approximately half of those living with food insecurity in Maine are designated “food insecure with hunger,” Winne said – a designation that means people are going hungry because they cannot afford food.
In an event convened by The Morris Farm and the Chewonki Foundation on Saturday, March 7, local organizations and concerned community members joined together to address the growing problem of food insecurity in Maine – a state ranked third worst in the nation for those living with hunger, according to the Food Research and Action Center.
Food insecurity is an all-encompassing issue that links poverty, agriculture, the economy, and nutrition, Winne, author of “Closing the Food Gap,” said during his presentation. It is as much about lack of food as it is about obesity and diet-related illnesses.
Winne warned the work of charitable organizations cannot replace the role of government in addressing the underlying causes of food insecurity, which are primarily economic.
Through panel discussions, workshops, lectures, and lunch, “Local Food, Local Hunger” brought the broad problems associated with food insecurity to the local level.
The purpose was to spotlight “an invisible issue” in Lincoln County and the oftentimes “invisible organizations” working to solve it, Merry Fossel, forum organizer and co-president of The Morris Farm, said.
Healthy Lincoln County, Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program, FARMS, Access Health, the Lincoln County Regional Planning Commission, Feed Our Scholars, and Boothbay Region Community Resources were just a few of the organizations that presented their efforts to increase the community’s access to healthy food.
Those efforts take diverse forms. They have included compiling data to identify community health needs in Lincoln County, providing summer lunch programs to low-income students, operating food pantries, and educating youth about how to cook fresh meat and produce – a skill, many participants said, that has been lost in modern life.
Obesity and substance abuse are two of the largest health issues facing Lincoln County, according to a 2014-2015 report presented by Mary Ellen Barnes of the Lincoln County Regional Planning Commission.
The report identified good nutrition as the most important factor for good health, and named poverty and unemployment as the primary culprits causing poor health in the community. Those findings were echoed in Winne’s analysis of the root causes of food insecurity.
According to Winne, the growing disparity between the “haves and have-nots” is directly linked to rising food insecurity levels and poor nutrition, resulting in a host of diet-related illnesses.
Through the work of local organizations, efforts are underway to promote access to healthy food in Lincoln County.
Feed Our Scholars sends schoolchildren in need home with backpacks full of food. Healthy Lincoln County operates summer lunch programs, including one for students at Miller School in Waldoboro.
Seventy percent of those students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches during the school year, said Anni Pat McKenney, Healthy Lincoln County program coordinator.
The Chewonki Foundation has worked to incorporate issues of food insecurity into its educational curriculum.
Focus on Agriculture in Rural Maine Schools representatives spoke about their organization’s mission to promote nutrition, educate children about local food systems, and connect local farms to the schools.
FARMS operates a community kitchen and learning center in Damariscotta where students and community members learn to prepare nutritious, locally grown foods. “It is exciting to see children get joy from cutting cabbage,” FARMS board member Virginia Hall said.
Colleen Fuller, of Access Health, spoke about her organization’s efforts to enable people to use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, better known as food stamps, at farmers markets.
According to Fuller, the Bath farmers market accepts SNAP benefits. Vendors there have seen its positive economic impact, Fuller said, and there is talk of extending the system to the farmers market in Boothbay.
Veggies For All, a project of the Maine Farmland Trust, presented its work to distribute farm-fresh vegetables directly to food banks. The University of Maine’s Harvest for Hunger spoke of a similar initiative to distribute farm-fresh vegetables to people in need.
Veggies For All Director Sara Trunzo spoke about the importance of communicating with food banks, the true experts on hunger in the community, to understand the community’s preferences and needs, which are not necessarily kale and mustard greens.
Trunzo spoke of the importance of incorporating the dignity of choice into hunger relief efforts. Many presenters spoke of the time constraints involved with preparing fresh produce, a luxury many working families do not have, and a major barrier to accessing quality, nutritious foods.
The lack of time and knowledge needed to prepare healthy meals has extended the sphere of food insecurity to include those struggling with obesity and food-related illnesses.
The Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program spoke of its efforts to support soup kitchens and food banks throughout the Midcoast. “We don’t do this in a vacuum,” Mary Turner, of the hunger prevention program, said. “This is a partnership.”
Strengthening the partnership of local organizations supporting hunger relief efforts was a major focus of the “Local Food, Local Hunger” forum, Fossel said – an event organizers plan to hold on an annual basis.
The issue of food insecurity cannot be solely addressed by the charitable efforts of community organizations, Winne said in his keynote address. It should not replace the role of government in addressing the food security needs of citizens.
Winne noted a government trend to support food assistance programs but to ignore its underlying economic causes, such as poverty and the growing wage gap.
He quoted a statement made by Oliver De Schutter, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food.
“Food banks are the safety net of safety nets,” De Schutter wrote. “It is only when government fails that food banks have to step in. Important as food banks are … they are not a substitute for social policies that protect people.”
Winne used De Schutter’s words to advocate for increased involvement in public food security policy. He said the battle to fight hunger is as much about providing quality food to people as it is about addressing its underlying economic causes.
Fossel said she hopes future food security forums result in an action plan jointly developed by community organizations. In the meantime, attendants were asked to fill out a pledge – a symbolic commitment to join the fight against hunger and promote access to quality, nutritious foods.