Sen. Reny introduces bill to help schools buy and serve more local food

Fri, 03/24/2023 - 8:15am

AUGUSTA — Sen. Cameron Reny, D-Bristol, introduced a bill this week to help Maine public school districts purchase and serve more locally produced food to students.

LD 921, “An Act to Allow the Local Foods Fund for Public Schools to Be Used for Processed and Value-added Maine Food Products,” was the subject of a public hearing before the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

Under current law, the Local Foods Fund incentivizes schools to purchase produce and other minimally-processed foods from local farmers and producers by matching one dollar for every three dollars a school administrative unit spends on qualifying local foods.

LD 921 would expand which foods school districts can be reimbursed for through the Local Foods Fund. The bill removes the “minimally processed” language from statute, allowing the fund to be used to purchase a wider range of processed and value-added food products produced in the state, according to a news release.

These foods would need to meet standards set by the Department of Education. The bill directs the DOE to create standards for allowable processed and value-added Maine foods and provide guidance to school districts regarding which foods are eligible for reimbursement, the release said. 

“As an educator and parent of two young boys, I have seen firsthand the positive impact of children’s access to healthy meals. A well balanced diet gives kids the essential nutrients for their growth, development, and overall well-being. A hungry or malnourished student cannot achieve their full academic potential. And kids get excited about having good food grown right up the road,” said Sen. Reny. “The Local Foods Fund, in its current form, has laid a solid foundation for increasing the amount of local foods in our schools. With LD 921, we can build upon this foundation to make a more significant impact. This will open doors for local businesses, such as Maine bakeries, to participate in the program and provide wholesome, Maine-made products to our students.”

In the 129th Legislature, Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, sponsored LD 454, “An Act To Encourage the Purchase of Local Produce for Public Schools,” which funded the Local Produce Fund for the first time. Then in the 130th Legislature, after hearing feedback from school districts across Maine, Sen. Vitelli sponsored LD 636, “An Act To Encourage the Purchase of Local Foods for Public Schools,” which broadened the eligibility criteria for the Local Produce Fund to further benefit Maine farmers, schools, and students.

“It’s important that we support our local farmers and food producers. It’s also important that we encourage high participation in the program,” said Sen. Vitelli, in testimony supporting the bill. “If a school has less kitchen equipment or a small cafeteria staff, why should they be excluded from the program? That’s a disservice to the school, the students, and the farmers and food producers in the area. By making more foods eligible for reimbursement, including Maine processed foods, we can help schools with a wide range of food processing capacity participate.”

“As an educator and coach, I know that kids need healthy food to fuel their day, whether that’s studying or competing in sports. When we get more local foods into our school cafeterias, kids get better access to meals that taste good and give them the nutrients they need,” said Sen. Joe Rafferty, D-Kennebunk, who co-chairs the committee. “The reality is, not every district has the capacity to cook every meal from scratch. Thankfully, there are great businesses in our state that are ready to partner with schools to feed our kids. This bill is a great win for students and our economy.”

Sens. Vitelli and Rafferty are both co-sponsors on the bill.

The Department of Education, Good Shepherd Food Bank, Full Plates Full Potential and the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association also testified in favor of the bill.

LD 921 faces further action in committee.

Sen. Reny represents Windsor in Kennebec County, Washington in Knox County, and the Lincoln County communities of Alna; Boothbay; Boothbay Harbor; Bremen; Bristol; Damariscotta; Edgecomb; Hibberts Gore; Jefferson; Louds Island; Monhegan Plantation; Newcastle; Nobleboro; Somerville; South Bristol; Southport; Waldoboro; Westport Island; Whitefield; and Wiscasset.