Food Sovereignty: One town goes it alone.

The town of Sedgwick, Maine has done something that no other place in the United States has dared to do: its citizens voted, unanimously, I might add, to declare food sovereignty. They have given themselves the right to control their own food supply; “to produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume local foods of their choosing,” without government intervention. The local ordinance overrides the authority of state and federal health codes, regulations, inspections, and restrictions. This means that raw milk, foraged foods, home-cured meats, and goods produced in unlicensed kitchens can be freely bought and sold.

In recent years, we’ve seen a flowering of small culinary start-ups. Cost, scale, and access keep them cooking at home instead of in the commercially licensed kitchens required by mainstream distribution channels. That then bars them from purchasing sales permits and liability insurance, driving many of them underground. Some state and local governments have chosen to relax regulations while others are cracking down on unlicensed operations, forcing them to comply or shut down. This has led to incidents like last year’s so-called pie-gate, when the elderly, pie-baking church ladies of St. Cecilia’s Parish were harassed and shut down by a state inspector in the midst of an annual bake sale fund-raiser marking the first Friday of Lent.

Questions of safety and liability come to mind.
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. Sedgwick decided to takes its chances with local producers, taking reassurance from the personal nature of the interactions between producer and consumer. Residents are being encouraged to make informed decisions, especially if they are consuming raw milk products, and to waive liability stemming from transactions.

Maine is governed by “home rule,” which gives municipalities the power to alter and amend their charters on local matters that aren’t prohibited by constitutional or general law. So far, state and federal authorities have been hands-off in Sedgwick, and three nearby towns are in the process of adopting similar measures.

Learn more about the food sovereignty movement. Grassroots International publishes Food for Thought and Action: A Food Sovereignty Curriculum. It’s available as a free download from their website.



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3 Responses to Food Sovereignty: One town goes it alone.

  1. Janice says:

    You’re so right about the need for middle ground when it comes to regulations. We need different standards for different sized producers.
    i think though, that one of the reasons this seems to work for Sedgwick is that the town has only a little more than a thousand residents. Transactions are face-to-face and between neighbors, and there is personal accountability on both sides.

  2. Boy is this a sticky wicket. My husband and I get as much of our food first-hand as we can — we raise chickens, turkeys, and ducks, keep bees, garden, hunt, grow mushrooms, and spend a lot of time fishing. If I could lawfully sell my birds, shiitakes, and smoked bluefish to my neighbors, I probably would.

    But I would worry. What if we made a mistake? What if something we sold made somebody sick — or worse? Food-safety regulations wouldn’t necessarily prevent that, of course, but they might reduce the odds.

    I want to love that people can buy milk, cheese, bacon, and chickens from their neighbors, and I want to believe that those neighbors are taking good care to prevent food-borne bugs. I also understand how onerous food-safety regulations can be (we farm oysters commercially) and how appealing it is to believe that ordinary, responsible stewardship should be sufficient for food safety.

    It’s hard to believe, though, that local producers, freed from regulation, won’t make mistakes. Some may even take advantage of the freedom to be unscrupulous — food producers aren’t exempt from greed or sloppiness. What happens when a child dies of listeria from unregulated raw-milk cheese?

    I’d like to think there’s a third a way. A set of rules that allow for on-farm slaughter of poultry or for the reselling of products unlikely to harbor nasty microorganisms. Rules geared toward the 20-chicken flock or the homesteader with a half-dozen pigs, the guy with the smokehouse, the woman who makes pies. Maybe?

  3. Monet says:

    So interesting…some of my family has a summer home in Maine…I’m going to try to find this town the next time I visit. Thank you for sharing, my friend. Visiting the blogs that I’ve come to love this year brings me such comfort. Thank you for being such a sweet and uplifting presence. Have a great Friday.

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