Charkoudian urging state agencies to buy food from Md. farmers
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — As another session of the General Assembly begins, a Montgomery County legislator is continuing her quest to make state agencies buy more food from Maryland farmers.
Del. Lorig Charkoudian said last week she’s preparing legislation that would require suppliers with state contracts to buy some of their food from Maryland producers. When state agencies buy food through smaller, direct contracts, they would also be required to show that 20 percent of what they bought came from local farmers.
“This is one of those things where everybody agrees with the idea,” Charkoudian said. “And yet year after year, we all talk about how much we like buying local, but our state agencies haven’t really made that shift.”
The legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Katie Fry-Hester, D-Howard County, has yet to be filed. It would also create a grant program at the Maryland Department of Agriculture to help build local food aggregation systems around the state. Those facilities would make Maryland food more competitive and attractive to suppliers and state agencies.
“The more that farmers are able to do the aggregating and processing, the more money that’s going directly to them as opposed to a prime contractor,” Charkoudian said.
The legislation would also create an office within the agriculture department that would manage a list of preferred local farmers available to suppliers. Any farmer who satisfies the state’s nutrient management requirements would be eligible for that list, she said. No additional paperwork would be necessary.
To bid on state food contracts, suppliers would need to show that they’d reached out to Maryland farmers to fulfill a portion of the contract.
“The prime contractor wouldn’t be able to come back and say, ‘Yeah, we couldn’t do it,’” Charkoudian said. “They either have to purchase from local farmers or they have to have the reasoning of why they couldn’t.”
To encourage local food purchasing, the state permits agencies to spend up to 5 percent more on local food if it’s more expensive. Agencies rarely do, however, because they’re not typically buying, say, watermelons from one farmer and beef from another, she said. Large suppliers such as Sysco can efficiently sell them everything they need in one contract.
If the legislation passes and doesn’t significantly boost local food purchasing, it would still yield valuable information about other agricultural needs requiring attention, Charkoudian said.
“If we find after a year or two of doing this that it hasn’t moved the needle, what we’ll also have is the ability to analyze all of the reasons why it couldn’t be done,” she said.
By putting more money in Maryland farmers’ pockets, the legislation will support farmland preservation, she said. Buying fresh, local food also has health and environmental benefits.
“I think part of what I really try to highlight for folks is, ‘What is the cost of not doing this?’” Charkoudian said.
The Maryland Farm Bureau announced its support for Charkoudian’s work earlier this month. She spoke at the organization’s annual convention in Ocean City, and the Farm Bureau sent a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan asking him to support the initiative. A large portion of food purchased in Maryland comes from North Carolina and Pennsylvania, the Farm Bureau said in a statement.
The legislation is, in part, a product of Charkoudian’s work with a state task force studying the issue of agency food procurement. That task force, which includes representatives of several state agencies, will meet through June. An interim report of their work will be distributed soon, she said.
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