When the complex, worldwide supply chain that keeps our shelves and cupboards full went haywire during the pandemic, people turned to local food to fill the gap.

There’s an important lesson in that. The system that sends trucks every day to deliver food from around the world to every community in the country can fail.

And when it does, we’ll need local farmers, fishermen and food processors to pick up the slack.

That’s what’s behind the $1.5 billion the U.S. Department of Agriculture is sending to states and school districts to make up for the supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic. The Maine Department of Education will get more than $5.5 million to support school lunches, using the money to purchase local foods as well as minimally processed domestic items such as fruit, milk, cheese and vegetables.

The USDA is also buying domestically produced food and distributing it itself to offset the deliveries lost to COVID and subsequent labor shortages, which have handcuffed the huge multinational corporations who produce and deliver the bulk of our food supply.

In Maine, school lunch directors were getting deliveries with only a portion of what they need, forcing them to change menus on the fly, and cut some things altogether.

We celebrate the resourcefulness of local school lunch staff. But the fact that the food supply can be disrupted like that should make us all wonder if Maine and New England are as prepared as possible to feed itself if the need arises.

Local food systems are simply more resilient and flexible than their massive international counterparts. Goods are shipped across state, not across the world. Businesses are smaller, and they can adapt to changes as they happen.

The larger market, however, is defined by conglomeration, lack of competition, and often worker exploitation. Few firms control the market, and they are behemoths with little care for local communities. When changes occur, they are like a large freighter — it takes forever for them to change course.

Never has that been more obvious than the last few years. When restaurants shut down because of COVID, the industry struggled to supply to grocery stores, which were experiencing record demand.

Now, the chain that supplies restaurants and grocery stores is struggling to get food to schools.

As the USDA said last year, COVID “exposed a food system that was rigid, consolidated, and fragile.” Maine can play a big role in making it less so.

Under a plan to boost local food production — conceived in part by Amanda Beal, now Gov. Mills’ agriculture commissioner — Maine would become the central producer in New England — something only our state has the acreage to do.

This vision has Maine supplying half the food to the region by 2060. In another effort, Maine’s diet would be made up of 30% locally sourced foods by 2030.

Both are difficult goals to meet — Maine only consumes about 10% local food now, and that may be high.

But they are worth pursuing in order to make sure food is there when we need it, and to support local producers and their communities, and the wider Maine economy.

To do so, Maine needs to drastically increase the amount of farmland. The state’s been losing acreage in recent years, but Land for Maine’s Future and other conservation programs can help.

Maine also has to add additional food processing capabilities so raw goods don’t have to be shipped out of state, something the Biden administration is now supporting.

There is precedent. From 2011-2020, Vermont increased its percentage of local food expenditures from 5% to nearly 14%. It takes work, but it’s possible.

Many individuals and groups are already doing the work necessary. The University of Maine System uses a lot of local foods. During the pandemic, the Good Shepherd Food Bank partnered with Maine farmers and fishermen to bring local food to its pantries, helping both the hungry and the food economy at the same time.

State lawmakers should get on board with these changes. Not only is it the right thing to do to bring food security to Maine, but it is one way to fulfill the wishes of the voters who overwhelmingly supported Question 3 last year, the constitutional right to food.

We had our questions about the referendum, but not many of its aims. The victory clearly shows broad statewide support for local food.

Let’s make it happen, and make sure we have a robust and healthy food system here, regardless of what’s going on everywhere else.


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