Local food access builds community, panelists say

(Left to right) Panelists Steve Shaffer, Sherie Blumenthal, Lesley Heiser, and James Tranchemontagne discussed how food brings communities together at the Oct. 18 GrowSmart Summit at the Frog and Turtle in Westbrook. 

WESTBROOK — If people don’t have access to healthy locally grown food, a community can’t be expected to thrive.

This was the consensus at a panel discussion at GrowSmart Maine‘s summit in Westbrook last week. The Oct. 18 event focused on Westbrook’s growth and development by showcasing local redevelopment, historical preservation and downtown revitalization.

The day began with five coinciding panels, one of which focused on how food brings communities together. Lesley Heiser, of Cultivating Community and the Good Food Bus, said the food available in a community reflects on its strength.

“When there’s a lack of access to good food, it’s not just a problem with food,” she said. “The community is not robust.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 16.4 percent of Maine households experience food insecurity. In Westbrook, 300 families use the community center’s food pantry each month, according to its manager Jeanne Rielly. The city’s General Assistance office granted $3,577 in food assistance to 77 individuals in September, administrative assistant Michelle Mecteaux said.

The panel, which also included restaurateur James Tranchemontagne of Frog and Turtle, Steve Shaffer of Black Dinah Chocolatiers, and Sherie Blumenthal of St. Mary’s Nutrition and the Good Food Bus, said communities need to work together to create equal access to healthy food.

“We believe access to healthy food is a human right,” Heiser said. “We want people to be empowered with food.”

Eating healthier means people should buy more locally grown foods, the panelists said, which in turn benefits the local economy.

“People have to be reintroduced to local food,” Tranchemontagne said. “It seems so bizarre to me that no one has a garden anymore.”

At his restaurant, where the panel discussion was held, Tranchemontagne strives to serve locally grown foods. He said it’s important to him to support local farmers while also giving his customers healthy options. The panelists recognized that not everyone can afford this lifestyle, though.

“For a lot of people the reality is that fruits and vegetables are more expensive,” Blumenthal said.

Organizations like the Good Food Bus, which has been coming to Westbrook for two years, sell fruits, vegetables and other locally sourced foods at low prices. Through the summer and fall, the trailer makes two stops in Westbrook and parks for one to two hours. Patrons can pay with cash, check, credit or debit card, SNAP/EBT and WIC.

“We literally put good food in front of people and give them another way to access it,” Blumenthal said.

Westbrook has also been working to help kids eat better and get them interested in healthier food. For many kids in the city, this isn’t always an option at home. According to the school district’s Director of Nutrition Barbara Nichols, 56 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch. At Saccarappa School, 73 percent of kids receive this benefit.

At Saccarappa and Canal schools and Westbrook Middle School, all students take part in a fresh fruit and vegetable program where they receive a free snack each morning. Tranchemontagne said it’s important for kids to be interested in farm-to-table eating because so often “it’s drive-thru to table for kids.”

The students in Westbrook who stand to eat better are interested in doing so, at least based on their participation with the Locker Project. The Locker Project has been coming to Westbrook for almost a year and provides produce and breads to students in need. The food, which is donated from Hannaford and Shaw’s, is near its sell-by date, but is still safe to eat.

When the program comes once each week, some students will grab just one thing as they pass through while other students fill two or three grocery bags. The Locker Project doesn’t limit how much food a student can take, allowing students to take enough for their whole family.

The goal for any community, the panelists said, is to have eating locally sourced foods become the norm. Nichols said she agrees, but that this is difficult to achieve.

“I think it’s a great idea if it’s cost effective,” she said. “I’m more focused on getting good healthy food to the kids.”

The panelists said their goal can be achieved if people who can afford to invest more in their food do so. Heiser said “people need to spend more on food and get away from bargain food” so that the cost of healthy food will go down.

“We want to drive demand for locally grown food so everyone can afford it,” Blumenthal added.

Not only is it good for people’s health, but eating this way is good for the local economy and for fostering a strong sense of community, the panelists said.

“Food is such a connector,” Shaffer said. “Food is what brings people together and it’s what creates community.”

Following the panel discussion, City Administrator Jerre Bryant said more restaurants need to invest in local foods and community members need to then invest in those restaurants. He said this is key for creating a vibrant downtown.

“A significant component of a downtown revitalization is the fact that downtowns are a social gathering point,” Bryant said. “Historically, downtowns are a big part of the social fabric of a community.”

The panelists said they want to see healthy eating incorporated into all aspects of a community and in people’s everyday lives.

“It can’t just be farm-to-table restaurants,” Tranchemontagne said. “It needs to be in our schools, in our churches. It needs to be anywhere there’s a table.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

(Left to right) Panelists Steve Shaffer, Sherie Blumenthal, Lesley Heiser, and James Tranchemontagne discussed how food brings communities together at the Oct. 18 GrowSmart Summit at the Frog and Turtle in Westbrook.