The Maine Food Strategy, an initiative to bolster Maine’s food systems, hosted a food networking event in December that was attended by the likes of Sen. Angus King and Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Participants talked over issues ranging from diversifying the seafood economy “beyond the lobster” to consumer education and marketing plans. And they hashed out priorities for 2017. We called up Tanya Swain, project director for the Maine Food Strategy, to find out what lies ahead for the group, but also to ask about how she ended up in this line of work, and in Maine itself.

SOFT LANDING: About 25 years ago, Swain had popped up from Boston, where she was working, with a friend who had a house on Clearwater Pond near Farmington. They were opening up the friend’s camp for the summer. Born in Colorado but settled nowhere, Swain was a college graduate with a political science degree who thought that she might want to join the Peace Corps or do international work. Another family friend was visiting, a man who had grown up in Rangeley. They hit it off. “And he wasn’t leaving Maine,” Swain says, laughing. Thus she landed here. Which was a good thing. “I really appreciate how grounded people are here.”

PAYCHECK: Jobs weren’t easy to come by, though. “I have done a million different things,” she says, starting with writing for local newspapers, including The Irregular in Kingfield and the Franklin Journal. She covered municipal governments and got to know her new state. She took away two things from that experience. “One was the ability to just sit down and write. There’s no time to dub around. You just get it out.” (True.) The other thing was learning how to listen and ask questions. During this time she started thinking about systems, about ways to create long-term change “that is going to really, over time, improve people’s lives.”

PLEASE ELABORATE: “In society we have these challenges that on one level are very concrete, like people need food and shelter, and we need to do things that aren’t damaging to the environment. And you can adjust those individual pieces or you can try to move the system that is creating those conditions.” She moved on to public relations work for groups like the Maine Community Foundation. “That got me really interested in the nonprofit sector.” In 2006 she took a job with the Western Mountains Alliance, a community development organization in Farmington that had been doing a lot of work with local agriculture. One of her early observations was that the many small farm operations in the area had trouble connecting with consumers. “If you weren’t from Maine and you didn’t know these families, you didn’t know how to get food from them. You didn’t even know they existed.”

MABEL’S BOOK: But Swain took inspiration from Mabel Dennison, a Temple woman who had taken it upon herself to drive the area talking to farmers about what they were producing and how it could be purchased. Dennison gathered that information into the “Farmington Area Local Food Directory” for the first time in 2000, and it was quickly dubbed “Mabel’s Book.” Swain put it online and updated it, focusing on connecting local schools with local food. The next step was creating an online farmers market, so that the working people who couldn’t make it to a Friday morning market could still gain access to good foods. “You could buy from a bunch of different farms and pay for it one place and then pick it up one place.” The market is still operating and can be found at harvesttomarket.com.

NEXT STEP: It was around 2010, Swain said, that people in Maine started gathering around the idea of a central coordinating body for all that was happening with local food. Vermont had started its Farm to Plate Initiative and in 2009 signed into law legislation supporting an investment program. “We didn’t have that level of legitimacy,” Swain says. The Muskie School of Public Service was selected as the backbone organization for the Maine Food Strategy in 2012, and Swain was ultimately given the task of being the project’s director. (Although it has a volunteer steering committee, the Maine Food Strategy is financially supported by Third Sector New England, a management and consultant organization that works with nonprofits.

RESISTANCE FIGHTERS: There was resistance, initially, she said, both to the idea that Maine needed a strategy “or that it was valuable to have people come together and work this way.” Some people felt that such work was already underway – “that ‘We don’t need this plan.’ And I could get this.” She’d encountered similar feelings while working for the Western Mountain Alliance, from people who felt “this is just another layer of stuff that I don’t have time for.” On the flip side, she said, that resistance brought her back to her earlier thinking on systems. “I felt like we are all doing amazing work and pieces of work and everyone is trying to pull in the same direction, but if we are really going to create a systems change that makes it work better for our communities, those are the kinds of problems that require strategy.”

BIG NAMES: Having Sen. King and Commissioner Whitcomb at the 2016 networking session was a validating experience. “They came to us,” Swain said. “We didn’t have to invite them.” The model they established with this 2016 meeting, and one they hope to continue, was that the participants shaped the agenda. (Couldn’t attend? Notes from the presentations are online at mainefoodstrategy.org.) One key finding was a need to expand the Maine Food Atlas. It’s already online, and includes geographical distributions of everything from farms to nutrition programs, but has yet to reach its potential, she said. The goal is to make it more searchable, both for those who want to go into food-related businesses and those who want to shop local.

TO DO: Other priorities include replicating ideas like Meet the Buyers programs that connect producers to buyers (the Good Food Council of Lewiston-Auburn held its first Central Maine Meet the Buyers event in November). The strategy also calls for sharing best practices and committing to supporting infrastructure businesses, such as processing facilities and trucking systems. And they’ll assemble a task force to research ways to help small businesses market their local foods. They’ve got a lot on their side – as Sen. King tweeted during the gathering, “We’re sitting in one of the world’s great brands: It’s called Maine” – but it’s a tough market for smaller and mid-sized businesses. “With the food system that we have, large companies are the ones that are controlling the marketplace.”