Could sheep and a shepherd replace lawn mowers in Deering Oaks? Could an urban farm sprout on the peninsula? Could the waiting list for a community garden plot be eliminated? Could hot lunch become cool?
Portland aims to find out.
A task force convened by Mayor Michael Brennan in 2012 is moving forward with a number of initiatives aimed at giving the city’s residents more opportunities to eat local and nutritious food. While the urban farm and flock of sheep are only in the discussion phase, work is underway to make school lunch more popular by cooking with local foods and to increase the number of community garden plots.
“We have an initiative that 50 percent of the food in Portland schools will be grown locally in the next two years,” Brennan said.
Currently the Portland school department is a statewide leader in this area, spending 30 percent of its food budget (which was $1.13 million in 2013) on local food. Milk accounts for almost 20 percent of the local food purchases, and the rest is spent on Maine vegetables, fruits, meats and tofu.
Each Thursday in Portland is Buy Local Day and on that day the menus at all the schools emphasize food sourced from within 275 miles of the city. Entrees include Maine grind hamburgers, baked chicken drumsticks, baked redfish or haddock, pasta with Maine marinara sauce and teriyaki tofu. The self-serve fruit and veggie bars in every cafeteria feature a number of Maine-grown items each day, such as kohlrabi, rutabaga, turnip, beets, carrots, asparagus, apples or fiddleheads.
The schools serve at least one vegetarian entree each day, with most of the dishes centered on cheese. However, Ronald Adams, who heads the Portland schools’ food service department, said his team is working to add more purely plant-based dishes, such as Mexicali beans, hummus and four-bean chili.
In order to reach the 50 percent local goal without seeking additional money from taxpayers, Portland officials need to get more students to buy hot lunch. Currently about 51 percent of students buy hot lunch each day. Adams said if he can get that number to 60 percent he will be able to afford to increase the local food purchases to 50 percent without raising costs to the district.
To that end, the task force has applied for a grant to help the schools figure out how to entice more students to buy lunch.
“We will be conducting focus groups with students, staff and families to gain insight into what we are doing right and what needs to be improved,” Adams said.
Adams is realistic and knows that buying hot lunch isn’t the coolest move a student can make. But he also knows that what’s considered cool is malleable.
“It is tremendously hard to eliminate the stigma around school meals without community support and encouragement for students to eat lunch with us,” Adams said. “Local foods help eliminate the stigma surrounding school meals by demonstrating that school lunch is quality food for a low price that students and the community can enjoy and support.”
Brennan believes it’s possible to convince more students to buy lunch.
“I think there’s a way to really provide a social challenge to students and families,” Brennan said. “They can support the local schools and the local economy by supporting their classmates to eat more healthy food.”
MORE GARDENING ACCESS
Another way to get more whole foods to city dwellers is enabling them to grow it themselves. In Portland, that means giving residents access to community garden plots.
For years, there has been a waiting list for community garden plots in Portland, and currently there are about 100 people on the list.
“We want to get rid of that waiting list and expand the community gardens and allow people to have more food independence,” Brennan said.
The city maintains 130 plots at four community gardens – on Clark Street, North Street, Valley Street and in Payson Park. In addition, there are five community gardens in the city run by neighborhood associations and other groups. These are located in Deering Center, Riverton, West Bayside, East Bayside and on Peaks Island.
This past year, the city partnered with Cultivating Community to maintain the four city-owned gardens.
“We’re in a brainstorming phase of what are the many ways we can work to eliminate or significantly reduce that waiting list,” said Tim Fuller, who works in the Healthy Portland division of Portland Public Health. “One of the obvious pieces is looking at whether we have more land available that we can expand community gardens or establish new community gardens.”
Fuller said the task force, which includes 17 community members involved in sustainable food initiatives plus the mayor and City Councilor David Marshall, is also discussing ways to encourage rooftop gardening and container gardening on both public and private property.
In addition to community gardens, the task force is looking for other ways to bring food production into the city. The group is talking about the possibility of a big undertaking such as an urban farm. But it’s also working on smaller scale projects, such increasing the edible landscaping around town.
“We’re trying to expand the number of fruit trees in the city,” Brennan said. “Last year we planted chestnut trees, apple and peach trees.”
Since he took office, Brennan has conducted what he calls a visitation program with the city’s businesses. The mayor, along with a community development expert and a representative of the Portland Regional Chamber, goes into workplaces and asks what the city can do to help the business prosper and grow.
“It’s based on the idea that economic development is not going to Texas to get businesses to come to Maine,” Brennan said. “It’s looking at what we have in the city and helping them grow.”
This year Brennan intends to visit a number of restaurants and food businesses.
One thing he’ll be looking for is opportunities for collaboration when it comes to food processing. The school department opened a new, 18,000-square-foot central kitchen this academic year that allows it to process and store whole foods from Maine farms.
“The new location was designed as a food processing facility,” Adams said. “So we have a straight flow of raw products from receiving to cooking and shipping to the 10 schools in the district without kitchens on site. We have increased refrigeration by a factor of four to accommodate using fresh, local ingredients and scratch cooking.”
Because there are so few food processing facilities in Maine, large institutions that want to serve more Maine-grown foods need to tackle the food processing piece themselves.
Potentially the schools could partner with other Portland institutions that need additional food processing capacity or have excess capacity the schools could utilize.
In the past year, the task force has also worked to make the vending machine fare in City Hall more nutritious and submitted a letter of support for the popular GMO labeling bill passed by the Legislature in June.
“I do see this as an ongoing effort, and we want to continue to find ways to support local initiatives around farming and food production.” Brennan said. “The more we can make Portland sustainable from a food perspective the better off we are as a city.”
Avery Yale Kamila is a freelancer who lives in Portland, where she hopes to one day see sheep grazing in Deering Oaks. She can be reached at: