What are the challenges to increasing the production and consumption of local food in midcoast Maine?
This is a question that occupied over 60 attendees at a recent “Local Farms to Local Foods Roundtable” that took place at Bowdoin College. Organized by the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, Kennebec Estuary Land Trust and Bowdoin’s Environmental Studies Program, with generous support from the Sewall Foundation, the goal of the daylong event was to connect local farmers to institutions interested in expanding their purchases of local foods.
Representatives from nearby restaurants, retirement communities, stores and school districts, as well as staff from Bowdoin College Dining, met with more than 10 farmers to analyze the market barriers between local farms and local businesses. Students, staff and faculty also participated in the event.
Bowdoin College students got a first-hand understanding of the complexities of this question at the roundtable. “Sustainable agriculture and food security are important and reoccurring themes in our courses and of student research,” said Phil Camill, Rusack associate professor of environmental studies and earth and oceanographic science, and director of environmental studies. Camill was one of the meeting’s facilitators.
Erik Nelson, assistant professor of economics, pointed out that two of his ES students are looking at some of the questions raised in the meeting as part of year-long honors projects: Leah Wang ’12 is examining the potential of the state food assistance program SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to expand markets for local foods while providing an affordable option for food in the region. Liz Leon ’12 is researching the potential for and impacts of the standardization of the local food market.
Students played a key role in the discussion by participating in small group discussions and recording the ideas generated by farmers and businesses. Phil Cuddeback ’13, a student in Camill’s senior seminar, Feeding the World: The Nature and Challenges of Our Feed and Agricultural Systems, was one of the day’s participants. “It was great to get the perspective from the ground up and to hear from farmers and institutions to see what the barriers are. There is definitely interest in seeing more local foods and it is great to see everyone working toward a common goal.”
Bowdoin’s engagement with these questions started with a 2009 student project in an environmental studies class that prioritized local lands for agriculture preservation for the Brunswick Topsham Land trust. This project was expanded to a regional analysis by Jane Koopman ’10 as part of an independent study and picked up again by students in a fall introduction to a GIS class. This summer, Bowdoin’s Community Matters in Maine fellows will be placed with organizations that are addressing these questions to get hands-on experience in working toward the implementation of some of the forum’s recommendations. “Our Psi Upsilon Environmental Fellowships provide more than valuable work experience; they enable students to work collaboratively on creating the infrastructure that allows Bowdoin to play a role in moving this initiative forward. The work that these fellows do over the summer is often the foundation of community based projects or student research,” said Eileen Johnson, Bowdoin’s program manager/GIS analyst and lecturer in environmental studies. Johnson helped organize the event.
Chris Cabot, a farmland conservation specialist who works with both the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust and the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust, expressed his appreciation of working with Bowdoin. “Our partnership with Bowdoin students and faculty on this farmland initiative has greatly enhanced our ability to do beneficial work for this region and provided excellent opportunities for Bowdoin students to see the intricacies of conservation work firsthand.”
Angela Twitchell, executive director of the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust, echoed his comments: “The Local Farms-Local Food Roundtable has grown out of excellent work done by Bowdoin students working on community projects though classes and community fellowship programs. The roundtable discussion and all of the exciting ideas generated from it will move this initiative forward and will also provide interesting projects for the 2012 Psi Upsilon Fellows to work on. Having Bowdoin College and its students as partners in our work is an incredible asset in helping us attain the lofty goals set forth by our mission and strategic plan.”
In his concluding comments, Camill stated the need to continue to identify ways for the College to work in partnership with local institutions and individuals. “There is a terrific synergy here. Through course work and independent studies, students are gaining an on-the-ground understanding of how communities conceive, debate and implement change at the local level. In turn, the communities benefit from improved networking, capacity building and the ability to translate knowledge into action.”