SAD 17 and RSU 10, 44 looking for local produce through Norway pilot program

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NORWAY — Farmers are one step closer to getting their produce into local schools and businesses as the Oxford Hills Micro Distribution program continues to gain momentum.

Farmers and buyers met at Norway’s Center for an Ecology-Based Economy on Jan. 20 to work out more of the logistics for the pilot program that has been nearly two years in the making.

“Ideally we would like to help foster agreements being made between buyers and farmers by the end of this month,” Seal Rossignol, the head of programming at CEBE, told those gathered last week.

Ken Morse of Community Food Strategies has worked along side Rossignol since the program’s inception, which only recently has been able to gain real traction.

“Cafe Nomad and the [Fare Share] Co-op, they were different from the schools with their needs. We thought what we’re trying to do is kind of focus on … a handful of crops,” he said, adding these include carrots, salad greens, tomatoes, onions, potatoes and possible cucumbers.

“We’re hoping we’re getting closer to you making some handshake deals,” he said to those gathered at last week’s meeting.

Rossignol and Morse acknowledged there’s not enough large-scale farms in Oxford Hills and beyond to meet the needs of SAD 17 and RSU 10 and 44, which had representatives at last week’s meeting. The hope is to provide some local produce in the school district and for farmers to possibly collaborate together in growing crops for these larger buyers.

“It may be better for the schools to buy a quarter of their carrots local and mix them in because of the price,” Morse said. “We’re not expecting a slam dunk here today.”

Jane Engelman of Sweet Roots Farm in Lovell said her operation is not yet at capacity to grow as much produce as the school districts would need.

“What is really worrisome is the pricing for the schools. Is that firm?” she asked.

“No, no. Obviously that’s not reality in buying local,” answered Jodi Truman, food services director for SAD 17. “I think the point for me is to get you into our schools – to get the fresh, local farms into our schools. To me, it is important. That’s why we’re all here, to make it work.”

Morse suggested looking into local hospitals or banks contributing.

“I think if we said, ‘The schools aim to pay two-thirds of what you could manage for your wholesale price,’ which of course is different than your farmers’ market price, then we can try to decide to pay for the rest of that,” he said. “[It] begins to deal with the price gap that we know is real.”

Albert Judd of Ordway Grove Farm in Norway appreciated the narrowed down list of produce buyers are eyeing and wanted to know more about the distribution part of the program. Rossignol and Morse agreed at the current time, there isn’t yet enough interest to set up a formal distribution system. But they want to help foster relationships between growers and buyers and give them a space where they can build relationships and make agreements.

The pair also offered help with marketing materials in the schools and beyond to help students and parents alike get to know their local farmers. Morse noted the importance of informing parents when a local product is on the menu.

“This is not the same, it is local, this is better,” he said. “This is circulating money into operations that feed our tax base and pay for the school district and all those things.”

On top of that, Morse said farmers could invest in more equipment or supplies if they know there will be a guaranteed and steady sale coming from a local buyer.

Truman and Jeanne Lapointe, nutrition director for RSU 10 and food service supervisor for RSU 44, planned to meet at a future date and identify what crops and varieties they would like to use in their respective cafeterias, Rossignol said. Once she receives the information, she will share it with the growers. Another meeting has not been scheduled yet.

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