Make local foods a state priority (Editorial)

by | Feb 8, 2019

Americans have developed a sustained enthusiasm for locally grown food. The number of farmers’ markets nationwide soared from 1,700 in 1994 to more than 8,000 today, and yearly sales at those markets now exceed $1 billion — and for good reason.

Local food is flavorful. It’s seasonal. It supports the local economy, benefits the environment and it’s often safer.

Freshman Del. Lorig Charkoudian said she believes it’s time for Maryland’s government institutions to jump on the bandwagon. We couldn’t agree more.

The Montgomery County Democrat has submitted a bill to the General Assembly that would create a task force to investigate how state institutions could boost the amount of food they buy from local farmers.

“I was aware of a number of challenges we have to developing a strong, healthy food system,” the Takoma Park resident told The Delmarva Farmer last month. “The issues are complex enough, and the potential is really significant, and so I felt it made sense to really have that conversation.”

The state doesn’t have a good system to track how much local food it buys, Charkoudian said. But the state agriculture and education departments have had notable success with their farm-to-school program. Nearly 70 percent of Maryland school districts participate in farm-to-school activities, spending more than $18 million on local food during the 2013-14 school year, according to a 2015 USDA survey.

We’re sure it’s an important source of revenue for many Maryland farmers. Imagine if all state institutions acted in kind.

The task force will need to resolve long-standing challenges. Local farmers wishing to access larger markets are often ill-equipped by themselves to meet buyers’ demands related to volume, quality, consistency, variety or availability, according to a 2014 USDA report. They will likely need assistance and infrastructural support. Local food laws can also spark legal challenges.

Charkoudian points to Maine as a potential model. The state passed a law last year requiring its government to purchase 20 percent of its food and food products from local producers by 2025. If Maine can do it, is Maryland capable of something similar?

Charkoudian is supporting another bill that would allow “cottage food products” such as baked goods and natural honey to be sold in a retail setting. It’s encouraging to see farm support from a corner of the state known more often among farmers for its regulatory ardor. Bills like these not only strengthen and diversify the state’s food system, but they bring Marylanders closer to their food and their farms.

At a time when Maryland agriculture struggles with development sprawl, regulatory overreach and the challenging economics of modern food production, farmers here have never needed the support more.

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