Maine legislators voted last week to moved forward with a proposed constitutional amendment declaring Mainers have a natural, inherent, and inalienable right to food freedom.
All that’s left is for the voters to ratify it and Maine’s residents will have the right to produce, process, and consume food without government interference in the form of federal health codes, regulations, inspections, and other restrictions. Foraged foods, garden-grown produce, home-cured meats, and goods produced in unlicensed kitchens will be freely bought and sold.
Even if you’re not familiar with the food sovereignty movement, you’ve probably heard some of the complaints about regulatory interference.
The best known (and most controversial) example is the decades-old squabble over raw milk that pits public safety concerns against individual freedom of choice. The result is a patchwork of conflicting state and federal laws, a booming black market in unpasteurized milk with farmers and dairy coöps selling bottles out of pickup trucks like prohibition-era bootleggers, and the occasional federal sting operation that ends with an armed raid on an Amish dairy barn. And every once in a while you’ll come across a news story of heavy-handed health inspectors shutting down a bake sale and confiscating baked goods from elderly, pie-baking church ladies. In Maine, governmental inspections and regulations make for much more than a quaint human interest story. They can deny a livelihood to the state’s food producers and can threaten the food supply of its residents.
Maine is not like other states.
It’s the nation’s most rural state with the greatest majority of its residents living outside of urbanized areas. Its business landscape is dominated by cottage industries, with small proprietors making up 97% of the state’s employers. Its farms are some of the nation’s smallest, they’re run by women at more than twice the national rate, and its farmers are growing younger in a seriously aging sector. Maine’s farmers are also more likely to engage in direct sales to the surrounding community, with some of the highest participation rates in farm stands, farmers markets, and CSAs.
The heart of Maine’s food sovereignty movement is its objection to the government’s one-size-fits-all approach to regulation.
A small farm typically thrives on diversity, with a range of crops and small flocks and herds of livestock, while the kinds of specialized facilities required to meet state and federal food processing standards are geared toward industrial-sized, single crop producers. The facilities often aren’t accessible to a small and scattered rural population, and a special license or expensive equipment can be burdensome for small producers to maintain on site. These requirements can be a barrier to entry for small businesses, but they also ban the kind of casual commerce and bartering that is a traditional part of rural economies—my side of beef for your load of firewood. Even Maine’s traditional community events like bean suppers and Friday fish fries can fall on the wrong side of the law.
Maine residents have been challenging the nation’s food regulations for years.
16 Maine towns had previously declared a local form of food sovereignty under Maine’s governance system of home rule, which gives municipalities autonomy over local matters. The town ordinances can exempt local producers from state licensing and inspections, but only the state amendment can offer legal protection from federal authorities.
Advocates claim that Maine’s food sovereignty creates fewer health risks than what else is out there.
There are growing concerns about the integrity of our national food system, and criticism of the sometimes arbitrary and wrong-headed nature of health code enforcement. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one out of six Americans gets sick from food-borne illness, with 3,000 of them dying each year. Mainers have decided to takes their chances with local producers, taking reassurance from the personal nature of the interactions between producer and consumer.