By Steve Genovese
In the past century, food systems across the United States have become highly centralized; a small number of corporations control much of the food that is distributed. Centralizing food access has resulted in relatively low food costs, but at the expense of equitable access. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines these gaps as “food deserts” or “areas with inadequate access to fresh fruits and vegetables, typically low-income or economically disadvantaged” and as “urban areas and communities where it is further than one mile to the nearest supermarket.” More food deserts mean less access to healthy foods and more people who are food insecure nationwide.
Even here in Maine – where farms number 8,000 – food systems remain disconnected. Roughly 14.4% of Maine households are food insecure, despite enough healthy food being produced on these farms and across the state. So how can Mainers better access our local food systems? And what programs are available statewide to eliminate food deserts and insecurity?
A formula for food access: community gardens
One solution to improving food access at the local level is the creation of community gardens. Community gardens provide growing space, and other shared resources like equipment, soil amendments, and educational opportunities to community members looking to grow their own food. In many community gardens, plot care such as watering, weeding, and shared space management is distributed amongst community volunteers.
February is a great time to begin considering a community garden plot and planning out the coming growing season! Many gardens have waitlists and an application or training process, so now is the time to prepare a gardening calendar and resources like seeds and equipment.
Here’s how some of Maine’s community gardens operate and how residents can get involved:
Portland: Cultivating Community manages more than 400 plots across 11 community gardens, which are available to city residents. In addition to their community gardens, Cultivating Community manages New Farmer Training on farms in Lisbon and West Falmouth, which are available to all residents of Maine. For more information about Cultivating Community and to request a garden plot visit www.cultivatingcommunity.org.
Auburn: More than 80 garden plots are available, spread across three community locations. Community gardeners can learn directly from staff and are provided with a wide variety of cold and warm season seeds or starts. Gardeners may provide their own seeds or starts, if they prefer. For more information and to request a garden plot in Auburn, see www.auburnmaine.gov/pages/government/community-gardens.
Biddeford: The Biddeford Community Gardens program operates individual and communal garden space in four locations across the city, with hopes to increase access in the near future. Additionally, Biddeford Community Gardens manages the Pierson Lane Children’s Garden, which provides youth the opportunity to learn about agriculture and nutrition in a supported environment. For more information and to request a garden plot in Biddeford, see biddefordcommunitygardens.org.
Additional programs and food systems access points
In addition to community gardens, many statewide programs are aimed at creating resources and access points to food systems. These include the Maine Harvest Bucks program, which helps SNAP/EBT users earn “Bonus Bucks,” enhancing buying power on fresh, nutritious foods. More information about the Maine Harvest Bucks program and where to find an affiliated market, see www.maineharvestbucks.org. Maine also has an extensive list of local food pantries and hospital-based food pantries that are available to aid in food access to all. See www.maine.gov/dacf/ard/tefap/countysearch.html.