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Group Wants UMaine System to Buy More Maine-Grown Produce

BANGOR, Maine — Maine-grown potatoes, carrots, blueberries and other produce will have more frequent appearances on University of Maine cafeteria plates if advocates for sustainable food have their way.

The Maine Food for UMaine Coalition wants the state's university system to purchase 20 percent of its food from Maine farmers by 2020.

University of Maine at Presque Isle junior Bobbi-Jo Oatway doesn't eat in the school's cafeteria much. It's not because the food is necessarily bad, she says. It's because it's not local.

"It's a large part of why I don't eat in the cafeteria," she says.

Oatway is a sustainable agriculture major, and she's passionate about local food. And she says she's not the only student vying for more Maine-grown cabbages, squash and rutabagas.

"The students I've talked to over the course of this campaign have been really supportive and really just wanting different foods, and not wanting the same foods mixed in different ways," she says.

The campaign Oatway is referring to is led by the Maine Food for UMaine coalition, a group of organizations and individuals that support a sustainable Maine food system.

On Monday, the group released its recommendation that 20 percent of food served at the University of Maine be what it calls "real" food — produced locally using fair and sustainable practices.

A 10-year, $12.5 million food vendor contract for the university system is up next spring, and if Maine farmers can get in on the new contract, it will provide a big boost to business.

"It would make sales a little easier," says Caribou farmer Sam Blackstone of Circle B Farms. "It would definitely bring up market share."

University of Maine spokesperson Dan Demeritt says staff and board members have been meeting with the Maine Food for UMaine System coalition for the last several months and that purchasing local, sustainably produced foods is a priority. But he says the school must also consider other important factors when awarding the next five-year contract.

"We will assess vendors based upon a number of criteria that will include among them cost, quality, and the capacity to service the contract," he says.

The Maine Farmland Trust's Mike Gold says providing locally grown veggies and fruits at a competitive price is a potential challenge, but so long as farmers can provide a cost within striking range of nonlocal competitors, they have a strong chance of winning the day.

"If they can purchase at a 10 or 15 percent premium above what they might get off a truck from California, for a lot of colleges that's a reasonable alternative — that's an option for them," he says.

As for capacity, Blackstone says he has already talked to other farmers who will combine efforts to ensure it isn't an issue for the University. Blackstone says he thinks Maine farmers can provide fruits and veggies well-beyond the 20 percent goal.

"Can we handle more than that for the University of Maine? No question in my mind we can handle more than that," he says. "But we've got to convince the cooking staff and the consuming public."

Administrators at the University of Maine will invite requests for proposals in August and award their top pick in January.