Eat Local Foods Coalition
WHY IT STARTED
Over eight years ago, two leaders who had each spent many years in the sustainable agriculture field realized that their individual organizations were not large enough to address all the complex issues facing agriculture in Maine. So Russell Libby, of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), and John Piotti, of the Maine Farmland Trust, convened stakeholders from across the state to provide an opportunity for those interested in food and farm issues to talk and network. In bringing these diverse groups together, the goal was to create a space where individuals or organizations from varied perspectives and philosophies could sit together at a “neutral table” to discuss problems and solutions. Although the original purpose was both policy development and establishing connections among members, ELFC’s focus quickly moved to networking with a shared social purpose: advancing the cause of local farmers and food producers, fostering collaborative problem-solving about agricultural systems issues, and influencing the way consumers buy and eat food. Amanda Beal and Lisa Fernandes, current Co-Coordinators of the Coalition, state that there has been “evolution over time” to incorporate more policy development. Happily, ELFC’s growth has coincided with the increased consumer interest in food and farm issues occurring around the country and in Maine. The numbers of young people who choose agriculture as a career has grown sharply in Maine. Despite having one of the oldest populations, Maine is fifth in the nation for the number of its young farmers. The incidence of farmer’s markets has also increased dramatically: 10 years ago there were approximately 25 farmers markets in Maine; today there are over 100. And restaurants now routinely build their menus around local products.
When the Coalition began, the central focus was to make ELFC a hub for support and networking for all individuals and organizations working on food/farm issues. Early on, members recognized that social networking would become the “new town square,” so the eatmainefoods.org website became the primary connecting point for ELFC; it now boasts over 1,400 members. Although this growth has been dramatic, the website only works if everyone is able to participate. To that end, the site offers multiple ways for members to be involved, including joining forums, posting information and photos, responding to blogs, finding or seeking employment, and learning about events around Maine.
Besides providing networking and support to its members, ELFC has also developed focus areas, based on the interests and energy of the membership at any given time. Two outstanding examples are the Maine Food Map and the By Land & By Sea program, both of which came about because of the needs and interests of ELFC members.
WHO IS INVOLVED
The Coalition is made up of approximately twenty organizational members and numerous individuals. ELFC hosts monthly meetings open to the public across the state. True to its network philosophy, the Coalition has never been highly structured, but organized in a “loose” fashion, with a meeting attendance that ebbs and flows. The Co-Coordinators point out, however, that there is always a “good core at the meetings.”
Besides connecting through the social network technology on the ELFC website, members are able to stay involved in other ways: supporting the core mission of ELFC, actively participating in its programs and initiatives, and coming to monthly meetings.
HOW THEY WORK TOGETHER
Although ELFC is a registered non-profit organization with a small Board of Directors, the central work of the Coalition is defined by its members. The Board meets as needed to make decisions about fiscal agency or guidelines, but issues and initiatives of the Coalition spring up from the members themselves. Monthly meetings are an important vehicle for dialogue about issues and solutions.
Monthly membership meetings are held in rotating locations around the state, usually offering a call-in or a Skype option. When there are specific goals/products to be completed, a subcommittee comes together; there is routinely eager participation, a sign of a healthy coalition. Meetings are held in libraries, Grange Halls, or University of Maine system campuses. The Co-Coordinators, the only paid staff of ELFC, emphasize that monthly meetings are “the core of the way we operate”. Introductions and updates make up the “meat of the meeting,” offering members an avenue for networking and information sharing.
A good example of the ELFC process for working together is the recent policy brief that was prepared for the gubernatorial candidates based on the By Land & By Sea forums. When the need for educating those running for governor came up at a meeting, representatives from eight organizations stepped forward to help create the document. It was sent to all the candidates, with a request to meet with each one. To date the committee has met with one candidate and requests are pending with the rest. This policy brief is available on the ELFC website.
Although ELFC has experienced considerable growth over the past three years through its website and initiatives, it has sometimes been difficult to get a broad range of constituencies around the table. The need to broaden the conversation about agricultural and fishing interests was the driving force behind the By Land & By Sea program. This initiative brought together representatives of more than a dozen farming and fishing organizations who represented many thousands of constituents, state agencies and other stakeholders to discuss how best to work collaboratively to support local food producers, build consumer support, address needed policy changes and determine where energy and resources could best be deployed to create a more sustainable, economically viable locally-based food system. Input was gathered through regional forums held around the state where hundreds of farmers and fishermen gathered to discuss their ideas.
The market for locally-grown food has expanded, but structural barriers still exist. Members see continuing to work on these barriers as an important direction for ELFC. The focus will remain on continuing to engage farmers and fishermen in dialogue, ensuring there’s enough productive land that is available and affordable for farmers, as well as training and helping young farmers establish themselves.
The systems ELFC has in place currently are scalable, based on the power of its electronic tools. The website takes the same amount of time to manage if there are 300 or 3,000 members. The next step for the website is to extend to other social media to drive people to the ELFC website.
PROGRESS TOWARDS GOAL
ELFC played an important role in developing the 2006 food policy for Maine. The enactment of this legislation created a statewide Food Policy Council that has been less active since losing support and resources due to state budget cuts. However, ELFC will continue to advocate for the state to recommit to the work of this Council.
The By Land & By Sea program is at the heart of what ELFC is trying to do: convening food producers, hearing about their needs and concerns, and recording their voices and solutions. International organizations have been tracking the success of By Land & By Sea. Slow Food has selected six ELFC members to attend their Terra Madre conference in Turin, Italy, and Amanda and Lisa moderated a session based on this project, entitled “Between Land & Sea”; some members of the delegation will present on Maine’s project itself. The potential for collaboration is huge; 7,000 people from around the world attended this conference in October 2010.
Another important initiative that has moved ELFC’s work forward is the Maine Food Map featured on their website. It provides a view of the food landscape in Maine through over 3,000 data points, making it the most comprehensive food landscape tool in North America. The map is targeted at three audiences: consumers, who can go to the map, enter a zip code, and find any producer or crop they are looking for; food producers, who are able to use the map to market their products and grow their business share; and practitioners involved in strengthening Maine’s food system, who can use the tool to get a snapshot of where food is being produced and where the gaps might be across the state.
Because this map was initially built on a shoe string, using free mapping tools and the labor of interns and staff, it is now groaning under the weight of its own good data. ELFC is currently envisioning the next iteration of the map and analyzing the resources that will be needed to develop it, with a goal of expanding the ownership of the map to include all the organizations that are part of the Coalition.
ELFC sees itself poised for continued growth, based on the growing interest in building more localized sustainable food systems around the country and in Maine. They cite the fact that at two percent, Maine has one of the highest numbers of households in the US getting vegetables from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share. In addition, the number of farms in Maine is increasing. And there has been an explosion of interest in ELFC’s website, with more new members than ever before posting photographs and connecting with one another.
In the future, ELFC envisions more partners making more connections to food and health and, of course, more Maine foods on Maine tables more often.