A shorter version of this essay was featured in "Maine Bicentennial Community Cookbook".
Maine curates its brand identity: "The way life should be." It is grounded in a back to nature movement articulated in the Nearings’ book "Living the Good Life.” Before the Europeans’ arrival, the people indigenous to this land spoke of their "good life." Each Wabanaki tribe had a word or phrase that expressed the collective wellness of a thriving community. Always at the center was food.
Food gathers us. We organize around sources of food, seeking simple ways to nourish ourselves. When Wabanaki people met French explorers in 1604, they helped those early settlers to survive the winter at St. Croix. They greeted them with an ethic of sharing and gratitude for what the land and sea provided. Instead of learning the natural cycles of this new place, these first immigrants began to compete with the people living here and impose their priorities and values. Eventually, they displaced them from their homes, interrupted their relationships to the earth and disrupted their self-sufficiency.
To justify land theft, murder and other crimes, these colonizers convinced themselves that the peaceful people here were somehow less human than Europeans. This ideology of superiority remains the foundation of inequality and maintains food insecurity today.
Maine people are seen as resilient, as we have to be, facing harsh and changeable conditions on land and sea. There was a time we, collectively, addressed far more of our local food needs than we do today. The modern food system now provides much for us, bringing fresh and packaged foods great distances, distributed through super markets, before they arrive on our tables. Still, people struggle to feed their families for reasons common 400 years ago, 200 years ago and today. Bad luck, poor health, unexpected expenses and a tough winter are among the obstacles of getting enough good food to thrive and be healthy.
Over 30 years ago, a serious discussion began that if we are to solve the problem of hunger, we need to measure our progress toward that end. In the mid 1990s, the US government adopted the term “food insecurity” to assess and explain poverty related food deprivation. The US Department of Agriculture defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Each year, through the Census Bureau, the USDA conducts a survey to assess the extent to which U.S. households struggle to get adequate food.
In September 2019, the USDA released its 24th annual report on Household Food Security in the United States. It estimated 11.1 percent of American households were food insecure, that is, they lacked enough food for all household members. Maine had an overall food insecurity prevalence of 13.6 percent and more concerning is the approximately 33,500 Maine households (5.9%) experiencing very low food security (VLFS), significantly above the national average on both counts. In this survey, only Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma have a higher prevalence of VLFS than Maine.
What should be obvious, but needs to be repeated, is that food insecurity results from inadequate income for a family to meet its food needs. Additionally, we have become disconnected from our food, no longer relying on our immediate environment to cultivate, forage, hunt or fish for the main sources of our diet.
One answer lies in our local food resources. Local food supports nutritious diets, stimulates regional economies, sustains healthy environments and creates strong social connections. This means that increasing local production, processing and access can alleviate hunger through a variety of strategies while building a resilient and equitable food system. Local food is an important tool to build food-secure communities. Knowing the farmer who grows your food is one of the most meaningful things you can do to strengthen your community.
We have forgotten how to appreciate our food. We don’t know where it comes from. We don’t know how to make it delicious and nourishing. We ignore the marginalizing effect when families do not have enough good food or the knowledge to prepare it.
Does this mean our food system is broken? Or is it producing outcomes precisely as those who profit from processed foods that undermine public health would have it operate? My bias is that the place our food system needs most healing is where it prevents people from accessing healthy food. Beginning there, these separations need to be woven back together and made whole.
Maine has a unique and historic opportunity to rally together and address this complex social problem. On May 21, 2019, Governor Janet Mills signed LD 1159: Resolve to End Hunger in Maine by 2030. Acknowledging our “Dirigo” motto and spirit, no other state has made a similar commitment. With support from the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, an advisory team presented its initial report to the legislature on March 3, 2020. It outlines the comprehensive strategy required to build food and economic security with Maine families.
Ultimately, our country’s history of institutional racism is at the root of poverty and food insecurity. Economic and racial justice are inseparable. Any plan to end hunger must reference intentional policy choices in our past that resulted in disparate outcomes for targeted groups. The resulting economic inequality impacts not just people of color, but is the foundation supporting the poverty that afflicts everyone who can’t put nourishing food on their table. This poverty is a cost to and a burden on us all. It takes away the humanity of those who have enough, making us all complicit in an economic system that punishes people for nothing they did wrong.
The honest stories told about who is poor and why reveal the causes and provide a framework for solutions. We must review historical moments when our communities made choices that privileged those already empowered to be more powerful while stripping others of basic necessities. Our children must learn a coherent story about why this nation and state allowed people to be poor. When we acknowledge that making people poor is a collective choice, our children’s history will tell how together we solved the problem of hunger.
Jim Hanna has been a Community Supported Agriculture member of Willow Pond Farm in Sabattus since 1991. He has worked intentionally to strengthen Maine’s food system for almost thirty years. His children and grandchildren are blessed to be growing in Maine.
Cumberland County Food Security Council
Cumberland County Food Security Council
The CCFSC is made up of engaged citizens, community leaders, and representatives from local organizations that are leading the fight against hunger in Cumberland County and across Maine.