PORTLAND, Maine — It started four years ago as an initiative to get healthy, local food into the city’s public schools and institutions. Now, the 15-member Portland Food Council is focused on much more.
Reducing food insecurity, maintaining a resilient fishing industry and increasing the production of healthier food citywide is the starting point for the new council, which officially launched Monday night at Fork Food Lab. Formed out of former Mayor Michael Brennan’s past local food initiative, a cross section of food advocates, city councilors, non-profits, chefs, grocers and just plain eaters gathered to toast the joint mission.
“If we want to create policy, we need the community members to come together to get it done,” said Jason Lilley, who works at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and sits on the food council board. “We are one of the only major cities that doesn’t have a food council.”
Building upon Portland’s reputation as a dining destination, the new organization wants to take food a step further.
As a connector for the local community, City Hall and the private food sector, the council intends to meet regularly to take the public’s pulse on food related topics, from agriculture to the working waterfront. The group would then make policy and law recommendations to the government. With a dedicated board armed with a strategic plan, members hope to leverage their power with more force than the past mayor’s plans for sustainability could.
“This is a newfound opportunity to bridge gaps and bring diverse groups together,” said council treasurer Dave Seddon, chief executive officer of the Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative.
City councilors like Jill Duson and Brian Batson, touring the kitchen incubator space in Bayside, seemed keen on the new endeavor. To Duson, the council will be “a bridge between citizens and the city government.”
The Portland Food Council, made up of representatives from large companies such as Sodexo, local outfits like Portland Food Co-op, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and community members, has a handful of lofty goals related to food. It would like to decrease pollutants flowing into Casco Bay, for example, but wants to help locals get involved.
Newcomers like Evalde Ndahiro, who moved to Portland from Rwanda three months ago already have the organization’s ear. The immigrant, who farmed back home, wants to grow his own food in Greater Portland as soon as possible. He hopes the council can make that dream come true.
“If I could farm here I could do wonders,” he said with a wide smile.
The next Portland Food Council meeting is 4 p.m. March 15 at City Hall. All are welcome.