Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative

How can institutions work effectively with local farmers and fishers and redirect more of their purchasing dollars into locally owned companies?

Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative was formed in 2015 to answer that question and change the conversation about how we can provide locally grown, raised, harvested and processed food to our universities, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions.

Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative Board Members, 2015.  Photo by Nathan Broaddus.

In 2015, the University of Maine (UMaine) System issued a request for proposal for their dining services contract, which had been held for 10 years by Aramark, a Philadelphia-based food service giant, which along with Sodexo and Compass Group control 90% of the world’s foodservice management. Organizers in Maine and regionally saw an opportunity to shift the requirements of the request for proposal and formed the Maine Food for UMaine Campaign, which was successful in getting the UMaine system to commit to 20% local by 2020.

Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative was formed to provide a locally owned alternative to the global foodservice companies that dominate many institutional foodservice contracts. “With increasing demand for locally grown food by consumers and students alike, we felt the time was right to bring local foods to an institutional level,” said Ron Adams, former director of Portland Schools Food Programs and Chief Operating Officer of the Cooperative. “While our initial goal was securing the University of Maine System contract, our larger goal is to provide locally produced food and food services to a number of institutions. As a locally owned business, we will re-invest our profits in Maine by creating new management positions, paying workers a fair wage and investing in rural economies.” Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative also took the commitment to local foods one step further and committed to 20% local in their first year of operating the UMaine contract and increasing that to 30% by 2020.

Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative is organized as a multi-stakeholder cooperative, with producers, workers, community members, and institutions each having an ownership share in the cooperative business. This structure allows for greater participation across the food supply chain and leverages this engagement to be able secure larger contracts, such as the UMaine system food service contract, which provides food for 10,000 students at six UMaine campuses.

Land and sea harvesters and producers and organizations committed to improving local food production in the state feel that a cooperative approach is the right way to imagine a systemic solution for the state.
On November 4th 2015, Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative submitted a bid to the UMaine System and in December was selected to present as a finalist for the contract. In February 2016, the UMaine System announced that they had selected Sodexo, a $26 billion French corporation, to take over the contract. Sodexo had offered $14 million in investment and had also adopted Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative’s commitment to 20% local purchasing in their first year.

The start-up cooperative faced huge barriers. Aramark and Sodexo have a virtual monopoly over the contracted food service management market and are able to offer huge investment promises that are attractive to institutions that need the money to improve their facilities. While the cooperative was unsuccessful in securing this first bid, Maine Farm & Sea did succeed in changing the conversation in Maine and regionally about what is possible in contracted food service management and how cooperatives can take our food system work to the institutional arena.

Hospitals in several counties have contracted with Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative to support them to grow their local foods programs. The cooperative recently worked with Mano y Mano to provide food for a summer camp for children of blueberry farm workers, coordinated foodservice management for BikeMaine (a 500-person cycling tour in Washington County coordinated by Bicycle Coalition of Maine), and took a lead on local food preparation logistics for Maine’s first Feeding the 5000 in the city of Portland. Additionally, Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative released a report in February with the City of Portland that examined how to increase usage of local foods within the city’s institutions, and provided a proven 9-step local food implementation plan.

While Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative continues to explore new institutional contracts, it recognizes the need to expand support among institutions for new business models and the need to raise the large amounts of capital that these institutions are seeking. Additionally, the work of Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative and Maine’s local producers would be easier if Maine’s institutions had a shared commitment to local purchasing and gave preferential treatment to locally-owned businesses.

“As Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative continues to execute our new strategic goals by facilitating marketing efforts, coordinating and consulting with schools, hospitals, and other larger institutions, and implementing technical and educational trainings in conjunction with other organizations, it is apparent that Maine’s food system needs multiple players for success,” says Dave Seddon, CEO of Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative. “Our approach is to work with the institutions directly and develop new ways to market all the positive attributes of local foods, such as improving community economies, reducing waste, promoting health, and valuing flavors from local healthy foods. We’re encouraging institutions of all kinds to recognize that local food can be used within any budget, all through a transparent cooperative model. Maine is aware of the changes that need to and should happen for the health and for the livelihood of all communities. We will be the foundation and hands-on support to make it happen.”

“Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative is focused on building collaborative partnerships in the food system that provide maximum benefit to our communities, economy and environment,” says Jonah Fertig, Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative Board Member and Cooperative Food Systems director with the Cooperative Development Institute. “By rooting ownership in our communities, producers and workers, we are developing creative solutions to the obstacles in institutional foodservice.”