In a first for Maine’s foodie-est town, candidates for mayor and City Council will be asked to talk about their positions on urban farming, help for the hungry, and a host of other food issues at policy forums next week.

To state the obvious, Portland is a food city. That doesn’t just mean it’s a fantastic place to go out to dinner, it means anyone who wants to be elected to the City Council or become mayor of Maine’s largest city better pay attention to the politics of food. Next week, candidates will be gathering for two food policy forums for the first time in the city’s history, and they should be prepared to discuss everything from food insecurity to raising goats within urban limits to whether chefs should be able to put moose on their menus.

Food is definitely not just what’s for dinner anymore. On a national level food journalists-turned-activists Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan have called for a federal food policy. And on a local level, now it is debate fodder for those who want to govern Portland.

“We have gone through a huge expansion of the food system just organically,” said Ben Tettlebaum of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Farm and Food Initiative, one of the organizers of the forums and an active participant in the Mayor’s Initiative for a Healthy and Sustainable Food System. “Government has played some role already, but we see a huge opportunity for government to get involved from the policy perspective, to help facilitate that growth.”

The mayor’s initiative started in 2012 after participants in a community food forum advocated for a more formal citywide group to talk about food issues, including food insecurity. It’s drawn about 100 participants who regularly volunteer their time. With six subcommittees, the work done by the mayor’s initiative has run the gamut from creating better economic opportunities for both sides of the farm-to-table movement to fostering healther food choices for all – without neglecting those who struggle with food insecurity.

Since Mayor Michael Brennan is facing a tough race against two challengers – a fellow Democrat, former state Sen. Ethan Strimling, and Portland Green Party leader Tom MacMillan – supporters want to make sure the momentum stirred up by the initiative isn’t lost.


“This is something that the community wanted,” Tettlebaum said. “The train is continuing on whether or not Michael is re-elected.”

For those in Portland’s booming restaurant scene, the wish list for city leaders is extensive but might be best summed up as, help us, don’t hinder us. Michelle Corry, who along with her husband Steve co-own Petite Jacqueline and Five Fifty-Five, has observed a change for the worse in the 13 years they’ve been doing business with the city. Opening their third establishment this year, the Portland Patisserie and Grand Cafe in the Old Port, was far more complicated than opening the first two.

“There are a lot of constraints in these old buildings that make it difficult to get it 100 percent to code,” she said. From her perspective, the city has grown inconsistent in its policies and become less helpful overall. The couple used to travel and sing the praises of Portland as a business-friendly city. “Unfortunately, I feel like that is completely the opposite now,” she said.

Don’t even get her started on what a $15 minimum wage would do to their business. She understands that the city wants to be progressive, but said leaders haven’t thought through what that would mean to restaurant owners. She and her husband have 50 employees. “It would be hundreds of thousands of dollars off our bottom line,” she said.

Vinland chef/owner David Levi, who is one of the listed sponsors for the forums, would like to see the city reconsider some of its rules around what can be served at local restaurants, including “more sensible rules around meat curing” (the city impounded some house-cured charcuterie at area restaurants this year, citing potential health risks). Also, as a chef dedicated to sourcing every ingredient from Maine, Levi is confounded by why the city allows restaurants to serve wild seafood but not wild game. “It’s abundant and safe,” he wrote in an email. “It would be an absolute boon to us if we could source even a little bit of wild deer, grouse, rabbit, moose, etc.”

Then there are the goats. Tettlebaum said an intern at the Conservation Law Foundation worked with the city on drafting an ordinance that would allow residents to raise their own goats within city limits, whether for milking or meat. It would be helpful to know where candidates stand on the sort of unusual issues that some Portlanders value and need (for some immigrants whose culinary traditions include goat meat, it would be a financial relief to be able to raise their own).


The broader goal of many of the sponsors is to form a more permanent body to take on food issues. To whit, a seven-question survey sent to the candidates included a question about how the council, or the mayor, would support a Portland Food Policy Council, which would bring “together city government, the public, and the private farm, fish and food sector to forward a robust food economy in Portland and to address policy affecting Portland’s food system.”

One sponsor, Mary Alice Scott, the education and outreach coordinator for the Portland Food Co-op, said a key to improved service and growth in the Portland food economy is an improvement to regional food distributions systems. The co-op opened nearly a year ago and has been gaining members (up to 3,430 at last count). Its network of food producers has also grown to about 250, some of them far-flung.

“Making sure that Portland is connecting well with other counties would be a real asset for co-op,” Scott said.

The list of sponsors for the forums for the mayoral candidates reads like a Who’s Who of the Portland food world. But alongside restaurant and grocer types are representatives from the Good Shepherd Food Bank, Preble Street and Wayside Food Programs, as well as the Cumberland County Food Security Council.

That’s a vital part of Portland’s food policy, said Vinland’s Levi.

“I would love to see the local government take more initiative in promoting better access to local, organic foods for people on limited incomes and the destitute,” he wrote. “I think this is, maybe, the most pressing public health issue we face, and it should be treated with that level of seriousness.”

Both forums are open to the public. Most candidates are expected to attend, except for mayoral candidate Ethan Strimling because of a scheduling conflict. He met with sponsors privately this week.



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