CAPE ELIZABETH — Mainers have a hearty appetite for local foods, but a new survey shows there are still many barriers preventing them from tossing Maine-grown items into their shopping baskets.

In a survey of food-buying habits, nearly 80 percent of Maine consumers said they prefer purchasing their produce, meat and fish locally, primarily because they want to support their farmers, fishermen and community businesses.

Despite that strong affinity for eating local, the survey showed that the local-food movement still has plenty of room to grow – and that producers can take steps to make it easier for shoppers to choose Maine foods, particularly when they buy fish.

Marketing strategies such as clearly labeling foods as Maine-grown or raised, telling the stories behind the products, and providing information for preparation and cooking would make local foods more accessible to the public, according to Maine Food Strategy steering committee members, who released the survey Monday in front of the Jordan’s Farm produce stand in Cape Elizabeth.

“The primary reason people buy local foods is to help the local economy,” said Mark Dvorozniak of Marketing Strategy Decisions, a member of the committee. “But it’s the direct communication with farmers and fishermen that’s really important.”

Maine Food Strategy is a nonprofit organization that is trying to strengthen the food network in Maine. Its statewide telephone survey of nearly 600 households, conducted by the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, showed that 58 percent of Mainers spend more than $50 on local foods in a typical month.

Overall, Mainers cited freshness, flavor and nutrition as top concerns in considering what goes on their shopping lists. Those were followed by cost and whether the animals that provide meat are raised humanely. Consumers also showed a preference for foods that are antibiotic- and hormone-free.

Mainers overwhelmingly reported doing most of their shopping at chain grocery stores, but more than 56 percent said they also buy food at farmers markets or farm stands.

In a first for Maine, the survey asked people about their gardening, hunting, fishing and foraging habits.

“We found that a little more than a third of households produce some of their own food,” said Tanya Swain, co-director of Maine Food Strategy, “and of the ones that are doing this, about 70 percent plan to do the same or more this year.”

While two-thirds of the consumers surveyed said they had bought “fish, seafood or shellfish” in the last month, only 47 percent of it came from Maine waters, said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and a member of the Maine Food Strategy steering committee.

“Fishermen historically have been left out of this conversation, and it’s time we start talking about seafood and putting it back on the table for our local consumers,” he said. “While many consumers don’t think about seafood when they’re looking to buy local, the state of Maine has a fantastic fleet of boats that sustainably target a wide variety of fish and shellfish that are landed up and down the coast.”

One reason people gave for not buying more Maine fish is that it’s not clear where the fish in the stores comes from, suggesting that labeling would be a good idea, Martens said.

“We need to do a better job of highlighting and labeling our products,” he said. “We’ve not done a good enough job in answering the questions as to what to buy, where to get it and even how to cook it.”

TELLING STORY BEHIND THE FOOD

Overall, Dvorozniak said, the report “confirms the demand for local foods and provides insight for businesses to grow.”

He said producers and retailers must broaden the variety and availability of local foods, offer quality at a reasonable price, and educate consumers with recipes and serving suggestions. Businesses should emphasize the specific geographic sources of foods and the environmental conditions in which they are raised, to reinforce the freshness factor.

“People in Maine and all across the globe want to know the source, and more importantly, the story behind their food,” Dvorozniak said. “And boy, do we have stories here in Maine – authentic stories, both old and new.”

Hanne Tierney, who raises vegetables and pastured pork at Cornerstone Farm in Palmyra, said she often shares such stories with her customers.

“All through the farmers market, people come up to me and say, ‘Tell me about your sausage,’ ” she said. “They aren’t asking what types of sausage I have. They want to hear that the pig was bred, born and raised right on my farm and that I didn’t use any antibiotics or growth hormones or animal byproducts or any of those things.”

While she welcomes such exchanges, she thinks they may be the equivalent of preaching to the choir.

“I’m not sure we’re reaching the part of the population that isn’t as concerned where their food comes from,” she said.

SOME IMPROVEMENTS UNDERWAY

John Bott, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said the results of the survey are “consistent with what we’ve found” when it comes to the need for building stronger connections between consumers and producers. Working toward that goal, the state’s getrealmaine.com website developed the first searchable database of farmers markets online.

Most recently, the department came up with a way for consumers to connect with farmers right in the grocery store. The project, being further developed by the Maine Farm Bureau, allows a consumer to scan the product code on a bunch of carrots, then see a brief description of the place where the carrots were grown and hear their story straight from the farmer in a minute-long video.

“We’re clearly optimistic that there’s even more that can be done in Maine to link consumers with local Maine food and products,” Bott said.

The Maine Food Strategy group will share key findings of the survey in briefings around the state throughout this summer.

Meetings will be held in Lewiston, on June 26 at the St. Mary’s Nutrition Center and the Good Food Council of Lewiston-Auburn; in Portland, on July 8 at Coastal Enterprises Inc.; and in Caribou, on July 16 at Aroostook Partnership for Progress.

Registration details will be posted at mainefoodstrategy.org.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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