Portland Food Council to focus on viability, sustainability

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PORTLAND — Organizers say the new Portland Food Council is a holistic way for the city’s food community to connect and make sure that people have access to enough good food and that food isn’t wasted, while also focusing on sustainability.

The council will hold an official launch party 4-7 p.m. Jan. 30, at Fork Food Lab on Parris Street. The public is invited to learn more about the council, whose goals include “shap(ing) laws and policies that affect our food system,” according to a Jan. 19 press release.

“The Portland Food Council aims to foster a healthy community by advancing the economic, environmental and social sustainability of the food system that supports Portland,” the press release said.

The council, which includes 13 members, evolved from an initiative begun by former Mayor Michael Brennan in 2012, which was known as the Healthy and Sustainable Food System. The goal then was to have at least 50 percent of the food served in the city’s schools be locally grown.

Now the Portland Food Council has broadened its scope and plans to “shape food policy (in order to) create resiliency, sustainability and vibrancy in Portland’s food system,” the press release stated.

Members of the food council include nonprofits such as Wayside Food Programs and the Maine Farmland Trust, and food producers and food-based businesses, such as Fork and the Portland Food Co-Op, which want to work together to collaborate on food-related issues from production to distribution and beyond.

Brennan is not a member of the food council, but does support its work and plans to attend the launch party next Monday. This week he said the more Portlanders can rely on local food sources and urban agriculture, the better it will be.

“Food is an integral part of Portland’s economy, and fresh, local food benefits everyone,” he said. “Hopefully the food council can promote policies and efforts (for Portland) to be more sustainable with food products and food production.”

“It will be great to have a unified voice” on these issues, Mary Zwolinski, executive director of Wayside Food Programs, an organization dedicated to fighting hunger and strengthening community, said. The food council is “a nice way to approach food security and community building,” she added.

Zwolinski also said the Portland Food Council was a way for the participants to coordinate their various efforts, connect and share ideas. “The launch is a way to let people know that this group is here and is active,” she said.

“There is so much going on in Portland in terms of food and in so many different sectors that to share what we’re doing is good. (Our goals include) the availability and production of healthy foods” for everyone, Zwolinski said.

“Portland is a community that’s so much about food right now. (The food council) is a way to ensure we’re not all working in opposite directions,” she said.

Zwolinski said, “It’s great to be a foodie town, but the issues are so much greater and broader than the high-end” food market. She added that approaching all avenues related to food in this way is “not typical, but it’s important to be proactive and involved.”

Eric Holstein, co-founder of Fork, which provides a shared commercial kitchen and tasting room in downtown, said his organization is involved in the Portland Food Council to make sure “we’re part of the conversation. We want to be involved as much as possible.”

Regulations around local food production, sustainability and how food is used and prepared “are huge issues” for Fork, which is why Holstein wanted a seat at the table.

Mary Alice Scott, the community engagement manager at the Portland Food Co-op, said, “With so many businesses, organizations and individuals interested in Portland’s food system, it will be great to have one place where anyone can go to learn more and get involved.”

She said the most exciting thing about the new food council “is that there is practically unlimited potential. From schools to public health to the economy, food touches on so many aspects of our lives.”

Meghan Quinn, event coordinator at the Maine Farmland Trust, said that outside of her role with the trust, she was one of the people originally involved in Brennan’s initiative on healthy and sustainable foods.

From her perspective, both then and now, “having community involvement and engagement is the best way” to accomplish the goals of providing more locally sourced food for all, Quinn said.

“I look forward to working together (to create) a healthy, sustainable food system that supports the city. This is an opportunity to act as a support mechanism and to bring people together in an organized fashion (to promote) resilient and sustainable change.”

She added, “There is is greater power in numbers and (it’s better) to work together instead of separately. I hope people will come to the launch party to learn about the food council’s goals and objectives and how to get involved.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.