PORTLAND, Maine — An array of Maine farmers, fishermen, local food enthusiasts and dining managers recently formed an impressive startup to change the way institutions get their food.

The months-old Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative plans to take on giant food corporations such as Aramark and Sodexo and augment the local food pipeline from Fort Kent to Kittery.

“We have the operations experience and skills and ability and production in the state. We are saying you don’t need outside companies,” board member Jonah Fertig said. “This is a Maine food campaign that is also about sustainability.”

Over the summer, the University of Maine System announced its goal to purchase 20 percent of food served on campuses from local producers by 2020. The initiative spurred individuals to act; forming a cooperative was the first step of an ambitious plan.

Led by former Bowdoin College dining purchasing manager Jon Wiley and Portland Public Schools food service director Ron Adams, the cooperative submitted a proposal to the University of Maine System for its dining services contract this month.

The team, which includes farmers, educators, students and plain old Mainers, is vying to oversee the dining services of six UMS campuses from Fort Kent to University of Southern Maine, with the exception of the University of Maine flagship in Orono, which provides its own food service.

“This is an opportunity to make an impact,” Fertig, a cooperative specialist who sees this as a way to strengthen the state’s food system through a sea change of institutional sourcing, said. “We had a positive response from folks at [the University of] Maine [system].”

Farmers such as Penny Jordan, owner of Cape Elizabeth’s Jordan Farm, believe in the power of many instead of a profit-driven corporation.

“If we can all do this together, then it is one other way for farmers to help define what makes sense for them to get their product from farm to table and really participate in the profits,” Jordan said in a prepared statement. “I think that this cooperative is a good way to approach that.”

Although a recent article on the New Food Economy website doubts such a grassroots effort can take on global food service providers, they applaud their “audacious” efforts and say the group has “come forward with a new way of thinking about how local food producers and institutions can work together — one that will be talked about, imitated and refined for years to come.”

The cooperative has developed a plan to meet the university system’s goal of 20 percent local food in the first year of operations and to increase it 2 percent for each year after that.

“Our goal is to bring more Maine food into Maine institutions and raise awareness that it is possible for a cooperative to do this,” Fertig said. “You don’t need companies from away. We can do it ourselves.”

The university system is expected to make an announcement by the end of January.

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.