How a Maine university plans to help grow the state’s food economy

Good evening from the BDN Portland office on Congress Street. Who’s hungry?

What we’re talking about

The University of Southern Maine next year will offer students a new program devoted to what we eat and how it gets to our plates.

The first of its kind in the state, USM’s Food Studies Program will launch as an undergraduate minor in the spring semester, and cover subjects such as the economics of Maine’s thriving microbreweries and how public policy might improve food insecurity in the state. The university plans to expand the program over the next two years to include graduate-level courses, a graduate certificate program in food studies and internship placements for students in the various food enterprises around Portland.

The initiative is USM’s way of growing Maine’s thriving food industry, which the program’s executive director Michael Hillard said is “perhaps the most dynamic … force in our state right now.”

A Harvard study last year found that Maine’s food industry was diverse and growing, but lacked organization.

“Whether it’s farming, making beer or restaurants, [the food industry] is just growing very, very quickly,” said Hillard, who is also an economics professor at USM. “And the idea is that the people who are leading it now had to go out of state to do food studies.”

[MORE: These 4 charts show Portland’s emergence as a culinary destination]

USM’s new offerings will seek to rectify that. Across industries, Hillard said that the state’s culinary renaissance has increased the demand for workers with a deep understanding of the forces that shape what and how we eat. And to help grow this workforce, the Maine Legislature has given USM $725,000 in start-up money for the new program through a grant from the Maine Economic Investment Fund.

The grant money will be dispersed over three years starting this year and will allow the university to hire two visiting scholars, an adjunct professor in the humanities and two social science professors. The university hopes to make the program self-sustaining through tuition by the end of the grant.

The program was developed in collaboration with a number of non-profits, public officials and businesses focused on food in southern Maine, Hillard said. And USM will receive ongoing funding of $125,000 per year from the MEIF to place students into internships with these and other groups.

One of those groups is the Cooperative Development Institute, which works with cooperative food businesses — like farmers and lobstermen — to develop distribution and marketing tools, according to staff member Jonah Fertig.

Both Fertig and Hillard said the the new program could help reach the goal set by Food Solutions New England’s of producing 50 percent of the region’s food locally by 2060.

“In order to do that, we need food leaders that are prepared to meet the challenges and obstacles that are present in our food system,” Fertig said.

USM’s Food Studies Program will officially launch in December with a public lecture, the first in a series by local and national food experts, Hillard said.  — Jake Bleiberg

ICYMI

Maine Med proposes a half-billion-dollar expansion, but capacity won’t actually change — Joe Lawlor reports that the hospital is proposing a $512 million renovation and expansion that will increase the size of the campus by 25 percent.

Joe writes:

While the capacity of Maine Med will remain at 637 beds, a major driving force behind the expansion is the desire by hospital executives to reduce the number of double-occupancy rooms to single-patient rooms, for patient comfort and privacy and to help reduce bottlenecks throughout the system. All 128 of the new beds to be built will be single rooms.

Maine Med currently has 303 double-occupancy rooms, but hospital officials don’t know yet exactly how many of those would be eliminated when the new single rooms are completed.

“It’s not the standard of care anymore,” said [hospital president and CEO Richard] Petersen, referring to the double rooms. “Our ultimate goal is to have all private rooms for all patients.”

To stop sex trafficking, Maine should start by ending demand — The BDN’s editorial board argues that the state should look into the so-called Nordic model, which makes it legal for people to prostitute themselves, but still blocks others from trafficking, pimping or purchasing sex. That could make victims of sex trafficking more likely to speak with authorities, as a Portland police officer recently told BDN reporter Danielle McLean.

Related: Read Danielle’s newest story in her series on sex trafficking. Related coverage can be found here.

LePage hints at ‘very large lawsuit’ over op-ed alleging substance abuse — Mike Shepherd reports:

The op-ed from substance abuse counselor Steve Bentley was published in print and posted online [by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram], but it was later taken down and replaced with an editor’s notesaying it didn’t meet the newspaper’s standards. The publishing of the piece was heavily criticized, including here at the Daily Brief.

But on Tuesday, LePage told radio host Ric Tyler that he has been advised not to discuss it because “there might be a very large lawsuit about it” and that he is considering “options” in response to the op-ed.

Now, people hint at lawsuits all the time, so don’t take this too seriously until it’s in court. But if LePage is serious, this could be a libel case, which would be hard for a public figure such as LePage to win.

Following up on yesterday’s news — Jake Bleiberg yesterday broke the news that a local developer is planning to build what would be the state’s tallest building. If all goes according to plan, the 23-story (likely residential) skyscraper would go up in the heart of the Old Port within the next five years. Jake has been talking with local stakeholders about the idea. Here’s my question: What is your opinion? Should the city grow vertically? Do higher buildings mean the city would lose the charm for which it’s known, or are skyscrapers inevitable? Holler at us: jbleiberg@bangordailynews.com, or dmacleod@bangordailynews.com.

The Big Idea

‘How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat’ — The New York Times reports:

The sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead, newly released historical documents show.

The internal sugar industry documents, recently discovered by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.

Related: Vox lays out the case for treating sugar like a real drug


Got any interesting story ideas, suggestions or links to share? Email Dan MacLeod at dmacleod@bangordailynews.com, or tweet @dsmacleod.

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Dan MacLeod

About Dan MacLeod

Dan MacLeod is the editor of BDN Portland. He's an Orland native who first moved to Portland in 2002. He's been a journalist since 2008, and previously worked for the New York Post and the Brooklyn Paper.