AUGUSTA, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Maine environmentalists, farmers and schools are trying to move an ambitious bill through the legislature that would put more locally grown food into cafeterias.
The bill would authorize millions of dollars in spending--most of it through a bond issue-- to make it easier for farmers and fishermen to get their food into schools. Despite Maine's rich agricultural heritage, the state imports 90% of it's food from out of state.
That's more than any other state in the continental United States.
The reason, according to research done in 2010, boils down to cost and access to markets. The bill being heard Tuesday by the Agriculture Committee would level the playing field, at least within the state's public school system.
LD 1431 would put more local produce, meat, cheese and seafood on the cafeteria trays of Maine's 186,000 public school students through a combination of financial incentives, infrastructure improvements and training. "So for every $3.000 I spend, I get a $1,000 back from an incentive fund," said Ron Adams, a bill proponent and Director of Food Services for the Portland Public Schools. The bill would also provide training to help kitchen staff handle seasonal produce and maximize student acceptance of those products.
The most controversial part of the bill is the $6 million bond issue that would go before voters via referendum. The bond money would cover the cost of establishing and supporting regional food hubs, that would gather, package and minimally process produce and seafood, making it easier for school districts to purchase and prepare the food.
But the legislation may have a hard time getting past fiscal conservatives. "We can't pay bills now in Maine! Why would we put out another bond," asked Rep. Dean Cray, a farmer who represents Palmyra. Cray also doesn't think schools should be obligated to buy his corn if they can get a better product somewhere else. "It's a free market..i can sell anywhere I want. To mandate it? I just don't think that's right thing to do," said Cray.
The bill's supporters say the upfront costs are only meant to jump start the process. "I think anytime you put fresher food on the plates, it makes healthier meals, it helps with academic outcomes, health outcomes and obesity prevention," said Adams.
Now lawmakers must decide whether paying more to buy local now, will pay off in the long run.