Since reading Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” 12 years ago, I’ve consumed just about any article I can find that sheds light on where, when and how the national food system falls down even in the best of times. With COVID-19 in the frame, those breaking points are becoming as clear as the plexiglass partition erected between you and your grocery store clerk.

The U.S. food system is more of a web than a straight line, says Maine Farmland Trust president Bill Toomey, “so the vulnerabilities…we’re seeing right now are more like threads breaking. And if one thread breaks, there’s a chain reaction that is set off (and it) disrupts other elements in the system.”

Toomey is one of a dozen food system experts I asked to pinpoint the threads in the national food system that have been frayed by the pandemic. All told, they identified 20 threads, but I’ve woven them into three main strands.

• Producers are undervalued because Americans generally believe food should be cheap.

• Centralized meat and dairy processing operations constrain the farms that supply them.

• The behemoth that is our national food distribution system can’t pivot to handle even slight disruptions, let alone a global pandemic.

The state’s food system, however, could grow to address all three of these challenges, experts say, but only with the full support of Mainers: more of us would need to eat more local food more often.

“The price of the food we eat usually is not the cost of the food we eat,” writes Sarah Hach, a food policy expert who, with her husband Bryce, runs Maine Food For Thought, a Portland-based, high-minded food tour company that is offering on-line conversations with producers, chefs and food policy wonks while social distancing orders remain in place. Mass-produced, industrial-scale food has a lower sticker price than locally and sustainably produced food, she says. But she argues we end up paying an aftermarket price for that cheap food by funding environmental clean-up measures, paying higher taxes to foot the bill for subsidies that go to industrial farmers, and accruing higher healthcare costs because the highly processed food we eat can make us sick.

Nor do we value the hands that feed us, Toomey said. The price of all that national cheap food? Farmers are not paid fairly for their work. Finding labor “is a struggle as individuals can now make ‘more’ on unemployment (benefits) than they can (earn while) working, so some employees have left farming operations,” said Hannah Carter, dean of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

“We know this won’t be the last crisis (American) farms face. Climate change and other challenges are on the near horizon,” Toomey said. “It’s time for all of us … to recognize the true value of the work it takes to get food from the field to our tables, and to invest in our farms and food.”

According to Sarah Alexander, Executive Director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Maine trucks in a whopping 90 percent of the food its residents consume. As national shortages of meat, vegetables and cereal drive up prices in grocery stores by as much as 50 percent this spring, she says it’s a good time for people to shift their buying habits to support local farmers, fishermen and other food producers at fair prices.

While centralized processing plants for meat and dairy are efficient and are able to package large quantities of food, they are, counter-intuitively, very fragile and not resilient in times of crisis, she said. Take the Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the Tyson poultry processing plant in Portland, plagued by the coronavirus, as two prime examples. Establishing more, smaller on- and off-farm processing facilities throughout Maine would improve conditions for workers, give farmers more choice of where to bring their livestock to be slaughtered, and increase the amount of local meat available to consumers.

A handful of corporations control most of the dairy products available at the grocery store. “They’ve squeezed margins so low for farmers that more than half of the dairy farms in the U.S. have gone out of business since 2003,” she said, “and if (farmers) have national contracts now they have been told to decrease production by 15% and some are dumping milk.” Local producers who sell directly to consumers are meeting the increased demand by delivering fresh organic milk, yogurt, butter and cheese to customers as fast as they can produce it.

Since the pandemic reached Maine, the state’s farmers, fishermen and food producers have been very nimble in their switch to sell directly to consumers. Carter points to The Maine Farms and Seafood Directory, an online listing of over 400 Maine food producers who have set up direct sales operations. Some are seeing sales numbers they have not hit in years, she said.

Still, Maine farms cannot produce enough food to feed the state’s entire population, at least not now. Building the necessary system infrastructure to reach that point will take time and a lot of money. But the biggest driver in this equation, all of the experts agree, is demand: a sustained desire for Mainers to source their food locally.

“Will consumers remember the relationships they established with their local farmer and continue to make it a priority to purchase from them?” Carter asked. Or will they return to one-stop shopping and cheaper food?

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Roasted Hasselback potatoes await a mushroom-spinach cream sauce. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Hasselback Potatoes with Creamed Spinach and Mushrooms
This is a recipe from Nigel Slater’s “Greenfeast Spring/Summer” cookbook. I changed it slightly so that I could source every ingredient in it from Maine farmers.
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a side

1 pound waxy potatoes (about 4 medium), washed
5 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and black pepper

3 cups fresh spinach

2 tablespoons butter
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 shallot, minced
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons grated hard cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Place 1 potato, on its flattest side, onto a cutting board. Score it deeply with a knife at 1/8-inch intervals, taking care not to cut right through to the chopping board. Repeat with the remaining potatoes. Place the potatoes in a roasting dish, drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper, making sure the oil and the seasoning gets down in between the slices. Bake for 45 minutes until the potatoes are golden and fudgy.

Meanwhile, wash the spinach, put the still wet leaves in a large saucepan, cover, and place over a medium heat until they start to relax and turn bright green, about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, drain the spinach in a colander and refresh it with cold water. Squeeze the water out of spinach, roughly chop it and set aside.

Add the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil and the butter to the now empty saucepan. Place over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until golden and crispy, about 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the garlic and place it on a paper bag to drain. Add the shallots and mushrooms to the pan, stir to coat them with fat, and cook until the shallots soften, about 3 minutes. Return the prepared spinach to the pan and add the cream and grated cheese. Warm gently. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon the sauce onto plates and place the potatoes atop the sauce. Garnish with the crispy garlic.


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