PORTLAND, Maine — A sustainable, healthy food system cannot be built overnight. To get local produce to your plate, a host of hands, hearts and minds has to work in harmony.

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a city to set the agenda for the state’s “new food economy.”

An economics professor at the University of Southern Maine led a daylong conference Monday titled “Scaling up to Local,” which examined ways Maine farmers, fresh-food purveyors, politicians and institutions can work together to strengthen this system.

“The community needs to know there is energy around the mayor’s food initiative,” said Michael Hillard, the economics professor who pulled together a panel of sustainable-food and labor experts, nonprofits and Portland’s Mayor Michael Brennan to highlight the issue.

To Hillard, Brennan’s food initiative, which aims for public schools, universities and hospitals to source up to 50 percent of their food locally, is “creating an updraft around this,” adding that such a bold plan will “create jobs and better food.”

In his January State of the City address, the mayor focused on local fish, singling out ground fish such as pollock and dogfish as a way to help the state’s commercial fisheries and tighten the buy-local movement. He wants to make eating local fish a priority in schools and large, local institutions.

As keynote speaker at the conference, Brennan set a can-do tone.

He said the key is to get more public school students to buy their lunch. “If 15 percent more students bought their lunch, that would give us the money to purchase more local food,” said Brennan.

Serving cafeteria meals that are “fresh and not processed” would cost the school system up to $500,000 if that percentage is not reached, Brennan said, adding that local producers “don’t have the same scale as Monsanto,” the agricultural giant.

To reach the city’s goals, members of the mayor’s subcommittee such as John Naylor, co-owner of Rosemont Market and Bakery, are strong disciples. Naylor, who spoke at the conference, works with 40 farmers and local food producers in his four markets, (the fifth Rosemont opens in Portland’s West End soon) and says a commitment is needed across the board to keep the movement robust.

Because the Portland-based grocer carries an array of local produce, meat, dairy and fish, and has forged strong ties with farmers, he was the “pivot point” for the conference, said Hillard. Though Naylor admits stocking his shelves with all local produce is impossible in the winter.

“Demand is growing, but how do you find the supply?” asked Naylor, who now shares his chicken farmer with Portland public schools and hopes to do more. “It’s not just about farmers, it’s about the food industry in the city.”

As an entrepreneur whose success depends on the fruits of the labor of local farmers, he should know.

“There are so many aspects to scaling up,” he said. “Education, the history of Maine food, re-creating Maine as a food hub. It costs money for big farms to move product across the country. As we open up and strengthen local markets, more things will grow.”

Beyond food in schools, Naylor also wants to see Mainers adopt the European model of shopping a few times a week for fresh food. Waste sets in when people shop for the week. He has noticed that young people get this, but older generations, weaned on chain supermarkets, need a refresh.

“People are used to supermarkets, where they have whatever they want whenever they want. We need to transition people to the point where they are shopping seasonally.”

Farmers at the conference such as Penny Jordan of Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth say more needs to be done to make farming a scalable, year-round profession in Maine. “We need to ignite a 12-month farm economy,” said Jordan, whose biggest problem is finding seasonal workers. “There is so much opportunity once the demand is there. If institutions only increased their commitment we would have a pull instead of a push.”

Though momentum is clearly radiating out of the state’s largest city, those at the conference lamented that not enough is being done by the government to strengthen the system. Portland may be the hub, but the consensus in the room was that legislators in Augusta need to take a more active stance so the vision is embraced by the whole state.

“Both Maine and Vermont are perceived as leaders in the local food movement, but Vermont has received more state support on a consistent level,” said John Piotti, president of Maine Farmland Trust, a nongovernment agency that has stepped up to fill the void.

“It’s exciting to see the interest in local food and farm issues,” said Piotti. “But it is only the future if we take the right steps: labor, land, the fundamental price of food. You can’t talk about one without the other.”

To Piotti, Portland’s mayor is on the right track. “Mike Brennan has done a great job highlighting this. Portland has become a national leader in the local food movement,” he said.

Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.