Good Shepherd Food Bank Is Betting on Maine Broccoli

The hunger-relief organization has partnered with Maine farmers and blueberry processors on the frozen-produce venture.

broccoli floret
Shutterstock
By Joel Crabtree
From our January 2024 issue

On a mid-October afternoon, the crimson blueberry fields surrounding Orland’s W. R. Allen blueberry-processing facility were tinged with the scent of wood- smoke — and steamed broccoli. Inside a new 7,000-square-foot addition to Allen’s existing 22,000-square-foot plant, workers were feeding bright-green broccoli crowns from Caribou’s Circle B Farms into a Rube Goldberg arrangement of stainless-steel machinery that chops the vegetable into bite-size florets, then washes, blanches, flash freezes, and deposits them in 600-pound boxes. Those containers then head to another blueberry processor, Wyman’s, in Cherryfield, where the florets are bagged for sale in grocery-store freezers.

“I knew nothing about broccoli,” says Simeon Allen, co-owner and general manager of W. R. Allen. “I didn’t even know where broccoli came from in Maine.” So, in 2020, when Matt Chin, president of Harvesting Good, a for-profit subsidiary of Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine, proposed they partner on a frozen-produce venture to boost business for local farms and raise money for the food bank, Allen needed convincing. Now, he concedes, it was relatively easy to adapt his facility to a new product. Good Shepherd spent $6 million (part of a gift from novelist and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) on the factory expansion and new processing equipment, and W. R. Allen freezes the broccoli with the same machinery it uses for wild blueberries. In what feels like agricultural kismet, the broccoli harvest begins just after the wild-blueberry season winds down, in August, so W. R. Allen and Wyman’s already had staff in place.

Chin sees broccoli as something of a sleeper crop in Maine, not celebrated like blueberries, apples, or potatoes. And yet, 270 Maine farms currently grow about 8,000 acres of the cruciferous vegetable, and consumer demand is high. In Aroostook County, where Harvesting Good sources its product, broccoli is particularly abundant, with farmers producing approximately 28 million pounds of crowns per year. “By investing in local farms and processors and all the businesses that rely on them, we are investing in Maine’s economy and creating jobs — hopefully good-paying jobs,” Chin says. That supports Good Shepherd’s recently expanded mission to not only feed the hungry but also “shorten the line” of people seeking food assistance. Good Shepherd is the largest hunger-relief organization in Maine and the nation’s first food bank to create a for-profit arm to address root causes of food insecurity.

Good Shepherd has experience working with farmers through its Mainers Feeding Mainers program. Every year, it stocks its 600 food pantries with two million pounds of fresh vegetables, fruits, dairy products, and meat purchased from more than 90 local farms. Harvesting Good’s freezing and packaging business has the potential to expand the market for those farms. Its broccoli is sold at Hannaford supermarkets in New England and New York and to institutional customers like schools, hospitals, and senior-living communities. In the coming years, Chin hopes to add more locally sourced products to the Harvesting Good line.

W. R. Allen’s new equipment arrived late in the 2022 broccoli season, so the held-over blueberry workers had time to process only 200,000 pounds of crowns. They handled five times that amount in 2023, and this year, Allen says, “we’ll be processing more broccoli than we are blueberries.” As Chin considers which products to develop next, he remains focused on the mission. “We measure our success not in profit dollars, but in years of being in business,” he says. “Every year we’re in operation is another year we invest in the local economy.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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