Scaling Up Local Foods Cooperatively

Reader Contribution by Cooperative Development Institute
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Local food has gone mainstream and these days each meal poses a question about the source and sustainability of what’s on our plates. Farm-to-table has become a household phrase, emblazoned on restaurant menus and grocery aisle signs alike. These changes feel authentic, rustic, even artisanal, and intentionally small.

Regional purveyors in Maine, though, have combined forces to move local foods beyond their current niche and into underserved institutional settings. Their statewide initiative, the Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative, unites farmers and fishers with distributors and service workers, chefs and consumers. They are gearing up for their first foray into the market, competing head-to-head with some of the largest food industry players in a bid for the University of Maine System food service management contract.

In Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Ron Adams stands in a farm field, a setting that is the picture of agrarian Maine, to introduce the new venture in which he’s playing a directing role as a board member. As the former director of Portland Schools Food Programs, he knows the ropes of institutional purchasing and feeding thousands of mouths every day.

Nearby are the many local producers and providers who, as part of this multi-stakeholder cooperative, will also jointly own and manage the operation. “With increasing demand for locally grown food by consumers and students alike, we felt the time was right to bring local foods to an institutional level,” he relates.

The organizers behind Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative recognize that while markets are filling up with locally sourced consumer goods, institutions lag behind in this trend and opportunity beckons to reach these larger markets.

The other cooperative members by Ron’s side are practitioners who know well what it would mean to scale up local food production. They are ordinary Mainers, low- and median-income producers as well as consumers, who bend to weed around kale and cabbage as they discuss the new venture’s potential impact.

“In addition to providing locally sourced food on an institutional level, Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative will provide farmers and fishermen with consistent demand for their products at predictable and fair prices, enhancing Maine’s rural economies and creating jobs,” notes Marada Cook, who heads up Crown O’Maine Organic Cooperative and is a board member of Maine Farm & Sea.

The new cooperative aims to increase community engagement with the university system, and beyond that, to leverage the purchasing power of institutions such as UMaine for maximal economic impact.

Taking Local Food — and Jobs — to Scale

This goal figures prominently in their discussion and it is part of their strategic plan to provide dining services to hospitals, local businesses, and schools regardless of the outcome of the UMaine System decision. The Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative is thinking big and thinking ahead, and this despite being a start-up formed last year. They are fully equipped to supply a range of major products and will be staffed by talented, experienced food service workers, chefs, and managers.

Six campuses totaling more than 10,000 students are part of the UMaine System contract, and Maine Farm & Sea is ready to provide daily meal service as well as event catering and other requirements of the UMaine contract — all with a hefty portion of local, sustainably-produced ingredients.

Maine Farm & Sea owes its deft positioning to its convener, Jonah Fertig, a developer at Cooperative Development Institute (CDI). He first endeavored to find out how feasible a local, cooperative food system in Maine would be, drawing from other similar experiences in CDI’s portfolio.

The five-year UMaine System contract mandates that 20 percent of food purchased be locally sourced by 2020, a requirement won by an earlier grassroots advocacy effort and one that the Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative recognized would provide them with an advantage over their competitors. Believers in this new venture recognize that Aramark, who currently holds the UMaine System contract, is a tough incumbent.

Maine Farm & Sea submitted their proposal to decision-makers at UMaine on November 4th and was selected as a finalist alongside Aramark and another corporate food provider, Sodexo. They’re awaiting a mid-January decision and are confident that their competitors can’t offer a similar value proposition—and when prices are competitive, that difference can sway decisions.

A Different Model

In the end, it’s this that sets Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative apart. Backed by contributors who are committed and business-savvy, the cooperative boasts a membership comprised of the same producers and consumers whose lives are affected by institutional purchasing decisions. It matters a great deal to their bid — and to their overall mission — that the cooperative is both owned and run by everyday folks. Maine’s institutions can choose to spend locally or they can deny the state’s economy a much needed support system, they explain.

Both Ron and Marada are experts in the impact local food systems can have on Maine’s economy. Under Ron’s supervision, the Portland Public School Food Services Program expanded its capacity, increased healthy food options for students, and added a local foods manager, all of which contributed to the city’s considerable local purchasing. Portland now spends 35% of its food budget on local foods with a goal of 50 percent by 2016. Maine Farm & Sea just issued a report for the city that sets out a plan for providing local foods to local institutions.

Marada grew up picking potatoes on the family farm in Aroostook County, and along with her father and sister turned their family business, Crown O’Maine Organic Cooperative, into the largest distributor of local foods in the state. Crown O’Maine is worker-owned and operated, and one piece of a growing movement to keep local jobs and invest in communities.

Unlike traditional companies that generate profits for far-away shareholders, cooperatives such as Maine Farm & Sea reinvest in local economies by returning profits to their members: the workers and consumers who use the co-op. Those same people control decision-making in the co-op, and their concern for their community is a motivating factor to make decisions that keep Maine’s economy healthy.

In a few short months they’ve swelled to over 125 member-owners. The organizers of the new cooperative emphasize this difference. Buying local is important, they argue, and Maine’s institutional buyers will have larger impact by sourcing their local foods from a business such as Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative.

Photos by Nathan Broaddus

The Cooperative Development Institutewas founded in 1994 with the explicit mission to foster an inter-dependent dense network of enterprises and institutions that allow us to meet our needs through principled democratic ownership, and that care for community, combat injustice and inequity, and promote conscious self-governance. The cooperative economy is embedded within and helps create a cooperative society aware of its place in a cooperative ecology. Go tothe CDI websiteto learn more.

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