Mainers care deeply about their food – how it’s grown, how it’s processed and how we can eat more of it – and this legislative session, that love is showing up in the form of bills.

Many such bills are still being drafted. Some may never make it into print, much less into law. But in a recent letter to the Maine Farm Bureau, Rep. Craig Hickman – a Democrat from Winthrop who is chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry – noted that his committee has received more than 80 bills to date, “the largest volume in recent memory.” Of those, Hickman estimates that one-third are food-related.

“Food policy proposals are at the top of the agenda,” he wrote. “Lawmakers have submitted bills to end hunger, create resilient food systems, establish a constitutional right to food, require proper labeling of Maine meat and poultry, and enhance statewide food self-sufficiency by increasing the consumption of Maine foods in state institutions and schools.”

Hickman says bills that have already been drafted and assigned an LD (legislative document) number are now being scheduled for public hearings. We’ve selected a handful of the potential bills that focus on local food to examine here, speaking with the representatives who proposed them.

Got milk? Is it fresh?

When you buy a gallon of milk and the label says “fresh milk,” what exactly does that mean? Surprisingly, it means the milk in that jug might still come from, say, Ohio and not a Maine dairy farm.

And what about sweet cider? If the label says it’s fresh, does that mean it’s made from Maine apples pressed last week at the local cider mill? Not necessarily.

“A lot of times it’s highly processed, and it may be made from concentrate, at least from what I’m hearing from some of the cider producers here in Maine,” said Sen. Jim Dill, a Democrat who represents part of Penobscot County. “They feel that that’s not really fresh cider.”

Dill is sponsoring a bill that would define exactly what “fresh” means for both cider and milk. Is the word tied to a certain date after processing? Does the definition change when the cider or milk comes from Maine versus out-of-state? Must it have a certain shelf life? Defining fresh, Dill says, could help local producers sell more of their product here in Maine. “But at the same time, we can’t be protectionist,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to export our stuff, and we’ve got to be able to import stuff.”

VENDING MACHINE BLUES

Rep. Maureen Terry, a Democrat from Gorham, knows firsthand what it’s like to be working late at the State House when her stomach starts to rumble, just to find that the closest vending machine is stocked with soda and sugary snacks.

“Have you ever been to any of the vending machines at the State House?” she asked. “It’s pretty sad.”

Terry isn’t against delicious snacks. After all, she has been a chef for 30 years and is the owner of Three Daughters Cookie Co. and MoMunch Granola. (She also co-manages the Scarborough Farmers’ Market and sells at the Greater Gorham Farmers Market.) She just wants, as her bill’s title states, “to ensure that healthy and locally produced food is used in state institutions and offered in vending machines in state offices.”

“My point with this (bill) is starting a conversation getting our institutions to offer really, truly healthier options to people,” she said.

Terry doesn’t know how many offices her proposed legislation would affect, but notes there are state office buildings in every county.

She said she’d like to see more Maine-branded products in vending machines as well, such as small bags of Grandy Oats granola. “Occasionally, we see Terra chips, but they’re only sort of local,” she said. (Terra Blues chips are made by a New York-based company with blue potatoes grown in northern Maine.)

Granola and other “healthy foods” can be loaded with sugar, Terry acknowledged. And snacks such as veggie sticks are “just processed vegetables that have been put in oil to fry,” she said.

The definition of what “healthy” means, exactly, and other questions about language will have to be addressed in committee, she said.

PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS

A bill originally sponsored by Democratic Rep. Michael Brennan of Portland would set aside about $1 million year in general fund appropriations to encourage public schools to buy local produce. The money would be used to provide a state match for every dollar spent on local produce by Maine school districts.

The bill also provides funds for staffing to administer the program. The Maine Department of Education already has a Local Produce Fund that matches $1 for every $3 spent on local produce by a school district, up to a maximum of $1,000 – but there is often little money in the fund, according to the education department.

Brennan transferred his bill to Rep. Eloise Vitelli, a Democrat from Arrowsic, but he is still a co-sponsor.

FILL IN THE GAP

Maine farmers who want to sell their produce to certain stores periodically undergo voluntary inspections to ensure their crops are handled, packaged and stored properly, and that their on-farm practices meet food safety guidelines outlined by the federal government. These standards are known as Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices (GHP). The GAP and GHP programs are voluntary, but more and more wholesale and retail outlets, both small and large, now require that their suppliers be certified. And that comes with a cost to the farmer.

Enter Rep. Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town, who has crafted a bill to establish a cost-share program that would give farmers up to $500 toward certification costs. GAP certification typically costs $666-$990 per farm, according to Leah Cook of the Maine Department of Agriculture, a fee that combines both state and U.S. Department of Agriculture charges.

THE BIGGER, THE BETTER

Rep. Michelle Dunphy has submitted a bill that would add two new members to the state’s Wild Blueberry Commission – both growers. Her bill would also insert a provision that would allow members to have consecutive terms.

The commission, founded in 1971 to promote the state’s wild blueberry industry, by statute has eight members “who are active in and representative of the wild blueberry industry.” As it now stands, three must be grower representatives, and five come from the blueberry processing industry.

Rep. Robert W. Alley Sr., a Democrat from Beals, has submitted similar legislation. His bill would increase membership of the commission from 8 to 14, and meticulously broaden representation. Alley’s bill requires that one commission member belong to a federally recognized Indian nation, tribe or band in Maine; one be an organic grower; one a fresh packer; one the leader of a cooperative; and one a representative of a value-added organization or company. It would add more blueberry growers to the commission and fewer large processors.

IS THAT CHICKEN FROM AWAY?

Sounds like a silly question, but there’s a serious reason Rep. William Pluecker, an independent from Warren, wants to hold livestock to the same “are you a real Mainer?” standard as people. Pluecker, a farmer, says that if a meat or poultry producer labels its products as “native Maine” – or even if such heritage is implied because the company has Maine in its name – that does not necessarily mean that the animals they’re trying to sell you for your dinner table ever actually lived in the state.

Under current law, any animal that’s slaughtered and processed in Maine, Pluecker says, is considered Maine meat. That puts Maine farmers who raise truly local meats and poultry at a disadvantage when it comes to selling their products, he says, as they can’t compete with bigger out-of-state producers.

Under one bill, meat or poultry couldn’t be labeled or advertised as “Maine-raised” unless the animals were born and raised here.

“The prices are being driven down by animals that are being produced at a much lower cost than we’re able to compete with,” said Pluecker, who grows organic vegetables at Hatchet Cove Farm.

Pluecker said he learned about the issue from a Maine dairy farm that also raises beef cattle and pigs for pork. Under his bill, meat or meat products sold in Maine could not be labeled with a certified Maine trademark, or be labeled or advertised as “Maine-raised” unless the animals were born and raised here. The regulation would also apply to poultry, although chickens and turkeys would get a week’s grace period from the hatchery to farm: For poultry to be considered native to Maine, the bill says, it must be raised solely in Maine from no later than the seventh day after hatching.

Pluecker said the bill has a lot of bipartisan support.

MORE LOCAL FOOD FOR MORE MAINERS

Rep. William Pluecker has proposed another bill that could let food-insecure Mainers buy more local food.

When a Mainer on federal nutrition assistance (SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps) signs up for a CSA share at Pluecker’s farm, they get double the amount of Maine-grown fruits and vegetables that their benefits ordinarily allow, thanks to the farm’s participation in the Maine Harvest Bucks program.

Maine Harvest Bucks, which is administered by the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets, and Farm Fresh Rewards, run by the Maine Farmland Trust, both help low-income Mainers stretch their benefits and gain more access to locally grown food by raising funds to match federal dollars. These programs also help Maine farmers by bringing them customers who otherwise probably could not afford their produce. In 2017, more than 1,000 Maine farmers earned an extra $430,000 in sales because of these two programs, according to the Maine Farmland Trust.

Pluecker’s bill would extend SNAP benefits by creating a $250,000 state fund to match federal grants, expanding both the Maine Harvest Bucks and Farm Fresh Rewards programs.

The University of Maine System gets 23 percent of its foods from local growers. Above: Glenn Taylor, director of dining services at UMaine Orono, the system’s flagship campus.

STATE TIMETABLE

Rep. Craig Hickman, a Democrat from Winthrop, has proposed a bill that would require state institutions to buy more local food. Maine already has laws that require state agencies, community colleges and the University of Maine System to do so, but Hickman’s bill adds an implementation schedule with more ambitious goals. By 2025, it says, state institutions should be purchasing at least 20 percent of their food from Maine producers. The goal doubles to 40 percent by 2050.

“It’s an accountability measure,” Hickman said. “How are we doing in achieving this state mandate to produce and purchase more food from local food producers for our institutions?”

Portland schools, for one, have already made some headway. Last year, the district spent about 15 percent of its total food budget on local produce, and another five percent on other local foods, according to Jane McLucas, food service director.

The University of Maine System, meanwhile, now gets 23 percent of its food from local growers and processors.

INFRASTRUCTURE IMPROVEMENTS

Rep. Craig Hickman has (at least) one more idea to help the state build its food economy: improve its food processing infrastructure.

Despite their oft-declared dedication to local food, Mainers still import 90 percent of their food, he said. That percentage could go down if Maine had more equipment to process local milk, poultry, meat, grains, seafood, fruits and vegetables. “We have some of all of these things,” Hickman said. “We just don’t have enough.”

The craft brewing industry needs a hops-processing facility, he said. Livestock farmers need more on-farm processing capability, so animals could be “slaughtered humanely where they live,” he said.

Hickman argues that food-processing infrastructure is just as important as transportation and broadband infrastructures in developing Maine’s rural economy. So he is sponsoring a bill that would authorize a $20 million general fund bond issue to build food-processing infrastructure in targeted areas of the state. Where are those?

“It will be based on where the need is,” Hickman said, “and who would like to come in and make the investment and jump-start the food economy.”

A CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO FOOD

Rep. Craig Hickman got into politics because of his interest in food sovereignty. As a farmer, he wanted to be able to sell products to his neighbors without needing a license from the state. He co-sponsored the Maine Food Sovereignty Act, which passed in 2017. Now 46 Maine municipalities have such policies on the books.

This session, Hickman is proposing a Constitutional right to food, an idea he says is already implied in many ways in our culture – so why not establish the principle in Maine’s Constitution? “It’s a declaration of a right,” Hickman said. “It’s not a law that’s going to change policy.”

We’ll let the provision speak for itself: “All individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to food, the right to acquire, produce, process, prepare, preserve and consume the food of their own choosing by hunting, gathering, foraging, farming, fishing, gardening, and saving and exchanging seeds, or by barter, trade or purchase from the sources of their own choosing, in the manner of their own choosing, for their nourishment and sustenance, bodily health and well-being, so long as no individual commits trespassing, theft, poaching or other abuses of private property rights, public lands or natural resources in the acquisition of food; furthermore, all individuals have the fundamental right to be free from hunger, malnutrition, starvation or the endangerment of life from scarcity or lack of access to nourishing food.”

As a proposed change to the Constitution, this resolution requires approval from two-thirds of the House and Senate. If it gets that, voters would then need to approve it at the next election.

At least 56 constitutions around the world already include a right to food, Hickman said.

“I don’t want people to get hungry, and I don’t want people to only have access to processed food,” he said. “Food is life, and if I have a right to life then I have a right to food, and it’s really that simple.”

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

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