AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine can't afford to fund an expansion of so-called food hubs where small-scale farmers can store, cut or clean their products and more easily distribute them to larger markets, though the idea has merit, Republican lawmakers said Thursday. But Democrats say they're determined to find a way to pay for the plan during this session.
The goal of the bill is provide more local foods to Maine schools by creating a $6 million bond issue and providing grants that would allow groups to start the hubs, where small farmers can aggregate their products for distribution. It would also fund programs to train schools' food service workers on the preparation and procurement of Maine-grown foods.
Supporters say the benefits in the bill are clear: It would provide more Maine students access to fresher, healthier vegetables and promote small businesses and the local economy. But several Republican lawmakers on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, which put off a final vote on the bill until later, raised concerns about the nearly $400,000 price tag this fiscal year, most of which would fund studies on the feasibility of a food hub in certain parts of the state.
"The only way we're going to get this money is to take away from revenue sharing, local towns and everywhere else because we're headed into a very big shortfall in the upcoming year," Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, a Republican from Turner, told the committee.
But one advocate said that expanding the hubs must be seen as an investment that directly benefits Maine's economy. Maine imports food much of its food, and in many cases that food will be more costly to produce over time or could eventually be unavailable, said Mike Gold, who is helping develop a food hub in Unity that will feature storage space and a washing and packing line for small farms not equipped to do the same efficiently in their own space.
"We need to continue to provide more options for people to access healthy local food," he said.
However, some farmers say there isn't space for more aggregators in the local food market and are opposing the measure.
Lisa Turner, who owns Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport with her husband, Ralph, said food hubs already are operating throughout the state and she doesn't understand why the government needs to get involved.
"Why is the government deciding that aggregation is the one right way for local produce to be marketed?" she said.
Sen. Chris Johnson, who's sponsoring the measure, said he's considering attempting to put an agricultural bond that would support food hubs into a comprehensive bond package lawmakers are crafting in light of the funding concerns raised during committee Thursday. But the Democrat from Somerville said he was "discouraged that there seems to be a partisan push to make this bill die."
Democrats on the panel said the bill deserves a chance before the full Legislature and that the funding question shouldn't get in the way of that.
"I don't think that we should allow a price tag of that amount to keep us from looking at the value of this bill in its entirety," said Democratic Rep. Craig Hickman of Winthrop.