Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
Sunlight streams in through a gaping skylight over a snug bar stocked with locally distilled spirits. Gold paint on the ceiling gives the 39-seat restaurant a warm, regal glow. Limbs of white birch line the walls, giving the illusion of dining in the Maine woods.
The restaurant’s name is the name that Norse Vikings who discovered North America gave to the region they discovered.
Oblong, dark stone plates bearing buckwheat pancakes with blueberries, slowcooked brisket and traditional Danish openface sandwiches -- smørrebrød -- arrive at gleaming yellow birch tables. Owner and head chef David Levi reminds us everything visible and edible is from the state of Maine, like turnips from Buckwheat Blossom Farm in Wiscasset, butter from Kate’s Homemade Butter in Old Orchard Beach, or parsnips and carrots from Goranson Farm in Dresden.
The air is filled with Paul Simon’s “Graceland” playing end to end, and all seems right with the world.
At the end of 2013, Levi opened this bucolic bistro Vinland in downtown Portland, proclaiming it the nation’s first 100% local restaurant. Add to that the fact that it’s gluten-free, and it sounds like simply an underdog effort to tap the perfect foodie formula. But as Levi’s 19 principle manifesto, found on Vinland’s website, asserts, his mission goes much deeper than positive Yelp reviews.
It’s not hard to eat local in Maine. The Vermont based local food advocacy group, Strolling of the Heifers, ranked the state second in the country (behind Vermont) in its 2014 “Locavore Index”.
Yet, Maine bottoms out when it comes to importing food, and that makes it vulnerable. A 2006 study by the Maine Department of Agriculture showed “Maine citizens acquire 80% of their calories from food imported from outside the state.” And of that 80%, the ingredients for the average meal travel about 1,900 miles “from field to fork”, a 25% increase from 1980. That’s about 600 miles more than the national average.
The industrial food complex that supports this type of disconnect of people from their food’s sources is fed by massive farms growing a single crop over and over again -- monoculture. The system not only ravages land but leaves an enormous carbon footprint.
And that fragility hasn’t gone unnoticed in Portland.
“If there is a catastrophe of some sort, of a national scope or of a regional scope,” said Portland resident and community gardener Espahbad Dood, “and the food supply is disrupted in the supermarkets you've got basically a three-day supply of food.”
The locavore index doesn’t lie: Restaurants are shopping more locally, CSAs and farmers’ markets are expanding, schools and food banks are trying to source locally there’s an energy and momentum driven by engaged citizens such as David Levi. To help fuel and synthesize these moving parts, Portland’s Mayor Brennan has recently organized a task force, an “Initiative on Healthy and Sustainable Food.”
“We didn't see the group itself as becoming the focal point of everything that was going on in the city,” said Mayor Brennan. “What we really saw was an umbrella that would encapsulate or provide an opportunity for people to come together and try to increase coordination, increase partnerships, and make sure that if there are certain things that needed some support, that we'd be able to step in and do that.”
Brennan’s initiative extends to making school lunches and even vending machines more healthy, more locally sourced, with an ambitious goal of shifting the balance of Portland’s overall food use to 50% local, 50% imported within two years. Bridging the gap from producer to consumer are these access points helping drive that vision of food security and sustainability toward a reality.
The air feels crisp and clean at Goranson farm. Mud puddles line the paths on an overcast day. Neighbors gather in the Sugar House to hear Rob Johanson the farmer talk about the process of tapping and processing maple syrup. There is a large greenhouse devoted to maple products, including cookies, maple nuts, maple sugar candy and of course, the pure and sweet syrup itself.
Goranson farm is one of many farms across the state that seeks to connect the local community to their food. They have a CSA (community supported agriculture) membership of about 270 in the summer and 110 in the winter. Members pay a monthly share and pick up food at the farm weekly. Goranson farm also sells their products to natural food stores and restaurants, including Vinland, donates excess food to food banks and participates in farmers markets.
Every Saturday, the Portland Winter Farmers Market is bustling. Farmers, bakers, volunteers and local foodies fill the Urban Farm Fermentory. Tables are laden with fruits and vegetables, meats, cheeses, eggs, honey, sauces, breads, pies, and more. Dawn York a weekly customer and volunteer, said, “Everyone is always excited about the market, and it is smiles and children, and you get to meet your farmers. It’s great all around.”
York uses the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to purchase locally grown food, spending about 75% of her benefits at the farmers market. She will round out her shopping at Hannaford’s or other grocery stores. Her benefits also help buy seedlings for her own “backyard paradise” garden. Without SNAP, and the farmers market accepting it, she wouldn’t have enough money to pay her other bills and survive.
She maintains that it's important for people of all income levels to be able to access healthy local foods. And she’s investing in developing that opportunity by participating in the planning of the Portland Food Co-op as well, which is slated to open this fall of 2014.
The Root Cellar
"I was really stunned to find out at that in 2010, Maine ranked second in the country in hunger,” said Mayor Brennan. “And we've done a little bit better now, we've bounced around in the top ten. But we still struggle with food security issues.”
In the fluorescent-lit basement of the Root Cellar on Washington Avenue, two pallets of food from Portland’s Good Shepherd Food Bank, much of which is locally sourced, are rolled into the center of the room. Members of the first Portland-based FANN (Friends and New Neighbors, a variation on the food pantry model) start distributing the food into a line of 24 banana boxes. In go a bag of potatoes, two cantaloupes, a box of cereal, a canister of oatmeal, a bunch of bananas and a box of croissants. Each box fills at the same rate with the same items.
Betsy Smith gingerly picks up an overflowing banana box and wedges it under her knees, on the foot rest of her electric motorized scooter. Smith was a Licensed Practical Nurse by day and bass player in the Portland-based female garage punk band The Brood by night. By the time she turned 40, multiple sclerosis made it impossible for her to continue working.
Regardless of income, programs and new initiatives are making healthy, locally sourced food available and affordable to as many Portland residents as possible. By fostering neighborly collaboration and rewarding sustainable efforts throughout the food system, these programs have a common goal of building a more interconnected, environmentally friendly community.
Smith has relied on Social Security, receiving Medicaid and living in subsidized housing. She only qualifies for $10 a month in food stamps. Eight months ago, finding herself more broke than ever, she started attending the Root Cellar’s Friday food pantry. Now she’s a part of the first FANN.
Of the 15 food banks and soup kitchens throughout downtown Portland, the Root Cellar is the first food pantry transitioning to a more community-engaged model. Volunteers here have offered service to between 100 and 180 members of Portland’s East End each Friday. But by the end of April, this program will be phased out and multiple FANNs will replace it.
The FANN model of food pantry-sharing requires a $5 investment. Every two weeks when food is distributed, each member pays $3 for a box. This money supports buying food from the Good Shepherd Food Bank and paying a manager from the FANN community group. Each of the members of FANN contributes to setup and distribution.
Despite its good intentions, Smith isn’t a fan of the FANN. She misses the old system.
“There was so much food,” she said. “You'd start at the vegetables and then the fruit, and then you'd go by the section that was stuff from Whole Foods. It was like going shopping.”
Betsy is considering checking out different food pantries, and if the price is right, joining the new Portland Food Co-op opening in September of 2014.
Espahbad Dodd is a 70-year-old homesteader-turned-hypnotherapist. He lives in housing subsidized for seniors, and since coming to Portland two years ago, has been on the waiting list for a city community garden plot.
Portland is home to four city-owned and five privately run community gardens. Of the city-owned gardens (which are managed by the nonprofit Cultivating Community) 32 lucky residents have access to a 10’x15’ plot for one year, for an annual fee of $35. Of those, ten are allocated for self-reporting, low-income gardeners at $10 per year.
Boyd Street Community Garden
Laura Mailander of Cultivating Communities sees firsthand how growing food can create bonds and enrich community, whether it’s pruning raspberry bush branches with University of New Hampshire students who live nearby or working with local master gardeners volunteering to help tend plots for others.
“You become neighborly and share knowledge,” she said. “It really connects people to each other.”
Unfortunately, the Portland city gardens are victims of their own success. The wait list is more than 100 applicants long, making it the single biggest challenge for developing gardens as a source of local, sustainable food. But rather than increase the cost of a plot, the city is pursuing the idea of opening new gardens around the city.
"A couple things that we hope to do over the next year is inventory all the city-owned land, property,” said Mayor Brennan, “to have a better understanding of what properties we want to preserve for public access, what properties we may want to develop into affordable housing, but also what property we might make available for community gardens.”
Once a month, the city’s subcommittee on Urban Agriculture meets in the Portland Public Services Department, on the corner of Portland and Parris streets. Inside the unassuming red brick office building, citizens and city officials discuss sustainability policies and existing and future projects.
“The intent was certainly not to slow down or to hold up a lot of the energy that people had that they were already moving forward with,” said Mayor Brennan, “not get in the way, and hopefully be helpful.”
At the March meeting, representatives from Cultivating Community, the Portland Tree Co-op, the city’s open space office and others met, some of them for the first time, and shared what they were up to and what their concerns are.
“None of these issues are going to be resolved or go away in the remaining time that I'm there,” said Brennan, whose term will finish in December 2015. “So I would expect that this initiative will be ongoing, and one that's evolutionary, and hopefully we can continue to stay ahead of this discussion on sustainability.”