Farmer Bill Spiller wants to help the hungry. But he also has to cover his costs. As a result, Spiller Family Farm in Wells is one of 20 farms growing for Good Shepherd Food Bank’s Mainers Feeding Mainers program this season.

It’s an innovative initiative that aims to provide fresh, locally-grown fruits and vegetables to Mainers grappling with hunger. What makes the program stand out is rather than just seeking donations from farms, the program works with farmers to pay them a fair price for their crops.

Spiller, who has donated produce to the York County Shelter for years and also donates to Mainers Feeding Mainers, said “we enjoy donating a large amount of food to the programs, but we do need to sell some of it to them to help defray expenses.” 

Last year, Mainers Feeding Mainers took in almost a million pounds of Maine-grown vegetables and fruits. Of that total, Good Shepherd purchased 400,000 pounds and farmers donated 550,000 pounds. The organization anticipates a similar harvest this year.

“Most of the farmers sell it to us for a wholesale price,” said Nancy Perry, project director for Mainers Feeding Mainers. “We usually lock in at that price at the beginning of the season. We try very hard to keep most of the produce under 50 cents a pound.”

Spiller Family Farm, which has been run by the Spiller family since 1894, is growing more than 15,000 pounds of apples and roughly 10,000 pounds of corn, tomatoes, cucumbers and summer squash for the program. Additional farmers are growing carrots, cabbage, zucchini, broccoli, potatoes, green beans and other familiar vegetables. 

Mainers Feeding Mainers specifically seeks out vegetables and fruits that can be eaten raw or require only basic cooking techniques. Many people served by food pantries have few cooking skills or lack access to full kitchens, relying on just a hot plate or a microwave.

Good Shepherd, which distributes food to 600 food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and other agencies throughout the state, started Mainers Feeding Mainers in 2010 when it noticed a gap in donations arriving at the Auburn-based nonprofit. “We saw that our donations coming into the food bank were dropping,” Perry said. “And we saw that the nutritional value of the food being donated had dropped dramatically.”

In response, Good Shepherd reached out to the late Russell Libby, then head of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and Doug Chipman of Chipman Farms in Poland Spring to get advice on how to get Maine-grown food to those in need.

“We were honest with them and said ‘What do farmers need to be able to make a slight profit?’” Perry said. “Farmers were very interested (in the program) because people usually go to them with their hands out for a donation.”

Good Shepherd negotiates a price with each farm at the beginning of the season and then puts together a letter of understanding about what the grower will supply and at what price. Perry said the letter isn’t a binding contract, like the ones farmers sign with retailers. Those contracts can put farmers in a difficult spot if they have a crop failure or end up with less of a particular vegetable than they anticipated.

“We’re not obligated to pay them for something we didn’t get, and they’re not obligated to find it for us if something goes wrong with the crop,” Perry said.

This season, Mainers Feeding Mainers is working on a pilot project that connects 12 of the participating farmers with food pantries and shelters in their area.

Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth is one of the farms providing produce directly to hunger relief agencies.

“I send a list to the food pantries every Sunday to say what I’ll have available that week and the units and the price,” said Penny Jordan of Jordan’s Farm, which her father started in 1948. “They order just like any other customer.”

A diversified vegetable farm that grows roughly 30 different crops, Jordan’s supplies the Preble Street Resource Center, Project Feed, White Memorial Pantry, The Root Cellar and South Portland Food Cupboard. The farm both sells and donates food to the Mainers Feeding Mainers program.

With a budget of up to $250,000 per year, Mainers Feeding Mainers pays for all the food sold through the program. Perry said the funding for the program comes from a number of philanthropic foundations, including the John T. Gorman Foundation, the John Merck Fund, the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, the Sam L. Cohen Foundation, the Betterment Fund, the Sandy River Foundation and New Balance.

Because many of the people served by food pantries and shelters need culinary skills to include whole foods into their diet, Good Shepherd brings its Cooking Matters education program to many of the food distribution centers its serves. Chefs and dieticians set up demonstrations to show how to prepare fresh vegetables using simple recipes. 

“The Cooking Matters program will use the vegetables we’ve had grown so people know what to do with the vegetables,” Perry said.

Jordan is hopeful programs such as Mainers Feeding Mainers, along with others that connect schools and hospitals with more whole, plant foods grown nearby, will help reverse the epidemic of lifestyle diseases fueled by eating highly processed, industrial food.

“If we can move people to fresh vegetables, we can start addressing some of the health challenges that people have,” Jordan said.

At the same time, the program strengthens Maine’s farming community by paying farmers a fair price for their products.

“We look at it as a win-win,” Perry said. “It’s hopefully helping the economy and the farmers, and it’s definitely helping those we serve.” 

Avery Yale Kamila lives in Portland, where she eats Maine-grown veggies and writes about health food. She can be reached at [email protected]

Twitter/AveryYaleKamila