When it comes to economic development, community officials like to tout available land, accessibility to transportation and a solid, modern infrastructure.

Food rarely comes up.

Mark Lapping, a distinguished professor at the University of Southern Maine, says that has to change.

“We’ve come to appreciate that food is multifaceted and the sort of issue that crosses an awful lot of lines and reaches deeply into people’s lives,” said Lapping, who is the primary investigator and chairs the research committee for The Maine Food Strategy, an initiative that is bringing together food-related organizations, agencies, businesses and individuals.

Lapping said food is responsible for a range of social impacts, from ethnic communities that bond over food from their homelands to families that struggle to put a nutritious meal on the table.

Nearly a quarter of Maine children under 16 live in what’s called a food-insecure household, where the family often does not know where the next meal will come from. That, Lapping said, creates ripples that can last a lifetime for individuals and spread beyond the family because hungry children don’t learn nearly as well as those with a full stomach.

Food has an economic impact as well, he said. On the one hand, foodies contribute to Maine’s tourism industry by heading to Portland, which has become known as a place to find innovative restaurants. Many restaurant menus mention the farms where they buy their products, which Lapping applauds as contributing to the health of those farms. Even those who aren’t into the latest food trend come to the state at least in part for the food, because for many, no trip to the state is complete without a lobster dinner.

(Lapping, by the way, hates the term “foodie” because it implies a faddishness around what he sees as a very serious subject.)

Restaurants and lobster shacks might benefit from the draw of Maine food, but the paucity of Maine-based food sources puts a serious hit on most Mainers’ household budgets and is a major drag on the economy.

No other region of the country is as dependent on food coming from outside the region as New England is, Lapping said, which means that an awful lot of dollars leave the region and go to the Midwest for grains, Texas for beef and the West Coast for fruits and vegetables.

“That’s money out of your paycheck and my paycheck that flows out of our economy,” he said. And, he said, food is one of the few consumer sectors in which prices are rising, a trend that’s likely to continue as climate change impacts harvests, so the bite on household budgets will only grow larger.

Much of the money in the food chain goes to processors, he said, and beyond some plants that turn northern Maine’s potatoes into french fries and a few, relatively small seafood processors, that money goes elsewhere.

That’s why food has to become part of the state’s economic development program, Lapping said.

The Maine Food Strategy, he said, calls for a multifaceted approach to raising the profile of agriculture in the state, through small steps, such as more community gardens, to larger efforts, such as purchasing easements from farmers to help protect land from development.

“Food is an economic development driver,” Lapping said. “We tend to think of economic development as white-collar jobs or manufacturing jobs, but agriculture and fisheries are industries that can be done well and bolster communities. That’s the sector that has brought the economy back and sustains rural communities and small towns.”

Lapping said the goal isn’t to force communities to start rewriting the planning codes or redrawing zoning maps, although those towns where farms are threatened by development might want to start thinking about steps that can help ward that off.

“We’re trying to generate a discussion,” Lapping said. “This is not a passing fad. Because of food’s relationship to health, communities and families, this has staying power.”


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