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Maine’s Food Sovereignty Win Is a Big Deal for Cities

Maine’s new law allowing cities to set local food rules shows how smart food laws can unshackle small producers and lead to a more sustainable food system

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By Baylen Linnekin

Last month Maine passed an important law that gives cities and towns in the state the option to deregulate a significant amount of food production and sales within their borders.

The so-called state “food sovereignty” law, An Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems, declares a city or town “may regulate by ordinance local food systems, and the State shall recognize such ordinances.” The law applies “only to food or food products that are grown, produced or processed by individuals within that municipality who sell directly to consumers.”

The law does not cover sales outside a given city or town that has a food sovereignty ordinance in place. Neither does the law preempt federal law.

Passage of the statewide law is particularly vital because 20 local governments in Maine have already adopted food sovereignty ordinances over the past several years. But those local laws — which were trumped by state laws — had no legal effect without the new state law.

The first Maine town to adopt a food sovereignty ordinance, Sedgwick, did so in 2011.

Sedgwick’s Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance cites the Declaration of Independence, Maine Constitution, and Maine statutory law as support for the measure.

The broad purpose of the four-page ordinance is to secure for Sedgwick residents the ability to buy and sell foods produced locally without interference from federal or state laws or regulations.

The Sedgwick ordinance declares it “unlawful for any law or regulation adopted by the state or federal government to interfere with the rights recognized by this Ordinance.”

As I detail in my recent book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, the food sovereignty movement emerged in Maine earlier this decade in response, in part, to a state law that required farmers who wanted to sell as little as one chicken per year to spend tens of thousands of dollars to process said chicken.

“Show me a farmer who spends $30,000 to sell $1,000 worth of food and I’ll show you a farmer who’s out of business,” I write in Biting the Hands that Feed Us. “Food sovereignty ordinances sought to address the absurdities of laws like these.”

The new statewide law changes everything in Maine for the better. It’s almost certain to cause food sovereignty ordinances to spread like wildfire across Maine.

“This really clears the way for it to keep spreading from town to town to town,” Jesse Watson, owner of Midcoast Permaculture Design, told the Bangor Daily News this week.

State Rep. Craig Hickman (D), who sponsored the House version of the law, has been beating the food sovereignty drum in the Maine statehouse for years.

“What the Legislature can do today is uphold these ordinances, grant them a bit of teeth, if you will, and relieve the state of Maine from using taxpayer dollars to file suit against a one-cow farmer who feeds the people in his community the food they want to eat,” he said in a 2013 speech on the floor of the statehouse.

That lack of teeth was a problem. Remarks by a member of the Sedgwick town board of selectmen at a December 2011 board meeting — just months after Sedgwick passed its first-in-the-nation law — illustrated the limitations of the then-handful of food-sovereignty ordinances in the state: “The town ordinances do not supersede the state and federal laws.”

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In Biting the Hands that Feed Us, I referred to food sovereignty laws as more “aspirational — akin to when Key West ‘seceded’ from the United States in the early 1980s to form the Conch Republic — than they are binding,” while noting the federal government or a state government like Maine’s would be “free to punish anyone who opts out of any food-safety rules.”

That happened in 2014, I explain in my book, when Maine’s Supreme Court ruled the town of Blue Hill’s food-sovereignty ordinance did not protect raw-milk farmer Dan Brown from having to comply with Maine’s food-safety laws.

Food sovereignty is no longer aspirational. Now, it’s something other cities and states should aspire to. Besides being a great law, the new Maine law is a great example of the bipsartisan (or nonpartisan, as you may prefer) nature of food laws that unshackle small producers.

The bill’s key sponsors in the Maine statehouse are Democrats, while the governor who signed the bill into law is a Republican.

Other bills to deregulate local food sales — including the PRIME Act currently before the Congress and Wyoming’s groundbreaking Food Freedom Act — have garnered similar bipartisan support.

The new law will face tests, no doubt, particularly in cases where local food sovereignty ordinances might bump up against federal law. This past fall, for example, USDA inspectors “showed up at a farmers market in Gillette, Wyoming, and ordered a food vendor at the market to destroy his food,” I wrote in an October column highlighting Wyoming’s Food Freedom Act.

Maine farmers, consumers, and lawmakers will have to be vigilant about the potential for similar actions from the USDA and FDA. But the win for food sovereignty in Maine — coupled with the spread of food freedom legislation in several Western states — takes us one step closer to ending many USDA and FDA abuses.

“In a growing number of states,” I wrote in a 2015 column, “it appears the prospects for food freedom are looking brighter each day.”

That was yesterday. Today, they’re brighter still.

Baylen J. Linnekin is a food lawyer and author of the new book Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make our Food System More Sustainable.

This post was produced in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, with support from The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

A version of this article was originally published July 1, 2017 in Reason.

Visit https://islandpress.org/resilience-matters-download to download a free copy of our e-book Resilience Matters!

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