Middle School students get their lunch at the school cafeteria at RSU3 in Thorndike. Credit: Gabor Degre | BDN

The idea that locally-sourced foods should be promoted in school lunch is nothing new.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture first started working to connect local farms and school lunch programs in the 1990s, and that effort was bolstered and formalized in 2010 with the creation of the Farm to School Program as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Here in Maine, the Local Produce Fund through the state Department of Education has existed for years, working, as funds are available, to match $1 for every $3 individual school districts spend on locally grown or minimally processed foods from a Maine producer. Local Produce Fund matches up to $1,000 for each district.

As “buy local” campaigns and organizations continue to take root and research continues to highlight how a healthier diet can boost academic achievement, we should keep growing our efforts to promote good nutrition and support farmers by sourcing local food in government programs.

An amended version of LD 454, a bill from Democratic Sen. Eloise Vitelli of Arrowsic which raises the Local Produce Fund cap for each school district to $1,500 in future fiscal years, passed both houses unanimously and was signed into law last week. It’s a modest expansion of an already small investment, but still recognizes the way that food support programs and local agriculture can work together.

Jeanne Reilly, school nutrition director for the Windham-Raymond school administrative district and legislative chair for the Maine School Nutrition Association, told legislators in January that serving local food in school can support student nutrition and the local economy at the same time.

“lt gives us pride when local Maine schools serve locally grown potatoes, blueberries, apples, tomatoes and more,” Reilly said. “We also know that when we serve local produce, we are supporting the local economy and keeping our dollars in our community and in our state. Students are enthused and engaged when eating food that is grown in their local community.”

At the national level, Maine’s 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree has introduced the Kids Eat Local Act in the U.S. House of Representatives to allow schools to choose “locally grown, locally raised, or locally caught” as product specifications when they source food. Sen. Susan Collins is the lead Republican co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill.

“Our children deserve healthy, nutritious lunches that are made with ingredients from their backyards — not highly processed foods,” Pingree said in a press release. “In the midst of an increase in diabetes and obesity in this country, it is critical to provide kids with healthy choices in the lunchroom.”

The productive link between public nutrition investments and local agriculture has also been applied here in Maine to food pantries. The Mainers Feeding Mainers program run by Good Shepherd Food Bank and supported in the past several years with a mix of state and charitable funding, provides locally grown products to Maine food pantries.

“This program is a win-win for all involved. It allows our farm to be part of the solution to ending hunger in Maine, while also receiving payment for the work we do,” Christopher Cooper of Cooper Farms in West Paris and Monmouth, told the Legislature earlier this year.

After some uncertainty about whether state funding for the program would continue in the new fiscal year, the Maine Legislature eventually passed and Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill providing $1 million for this type of hunger relief in each of the next two years.

Good Shepherd President Kristen Miale called the funding a “huge win” that, coupled with philanthropic support, will allow the Mainers Feeding Mainers to continue.

With other states moving to adopt the Mainers Feeding Mainers model — look no further than the new Vermonters Feeding Vermonters program in the Green Mountain State — it would have been very unfortunate if Maine policymakers had moved away from supporting this approach. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

Anti-hunger initiatives and school lunch programs exist to fight hunger and fuel our young people as they learn — not to be stimulus programs for the agriculture industry. The inverse is true of agricultural supports. But there is a natural and obvious overlap here that can mutually benefit both efforts and can make sense for taxpayers as well.

And when policymakers have a chance, they should continue to maximize worthwhile win-win investments like these and look for new ways to promote healthy people and healthy local economies.