In Maine, Towns Fight for Food Sovereignty
By Julia Bayly
As far as Sedgwick resident and locally sourced food advocate Deborah Evans is concerned, everyone should have the right to choose their own food, whether it’s from the farmer down the road or from the local supermarket.
In 2010, when she said state and federal agencies passed laws curtailing what local farmers could sell directly to customers, she and a group of local food supporters in Hancock County drafted Maine’s first food sovereignty ordinance.
The ordinance was approved at the annual Sedgwick town meeting that spring and the communities of Blue Hill, Brooksville and Penobscot quickly followed.
Today, 16 Maine towns in seven counties have declared food sovereignty with local ordinances giving residents the right to produce, sell, purchase and consume local foods of their own choosing.
Also adopting the food ordinance were Trenton, Hope, Appleton, Isle Au Haut, Plymouth, Livermore, Freedom, Moscow, Solon, Bingham and Alexander, according to Evans.
Under the local ordinances, local food producers are exempt from state licensing and inspections governing the selling of food as long as the transactions are between the producers and the customers for home consumption or when the food is sold and consumed at community events such as church suppers.
However, as far as the state is concerned, towns don’t have the authority to trump agriculture regulations with local ordinances.
That was reconfirmed with a 2014 Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision, according to John Bott, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
In a case that pitted the department against a dairy farmer producing and selling raw milk in State of Maine v. Dan Brown, the court affirmed, “The State’s responsibility to protect the public health by ensuring sanitary conditions and proper business operating practices for the preparation and sale of food to the public is an equally essential function of government.”
Bott said the decision specified that local ordinances are valid only when not preempted by state law.
When it comes to the buying and selling of food, state and federal food safety regulations trump local ordinances.
“The Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s role is to support and promote Maine agriculture large and small, local and exported,” he said. “And help ensure its success by enhancing quality and consumer confidence in Maine products.”
Evans disagrees, saying the “home rule” provision of the state constitution gives residents the right to enact ordinances “local and municipal in character.”
Evans and other supporters of food sovereignty do acknowledge the ordinances are largely symbolic.
“Nothing really has happened since it passed,” Jim Schatz, Blue Hill selectman, said. “The ordinance sits up on a shelf. It is important to have, but I can’t say it’s enabled a lot of different food-related activity that was not already here.”
What adoption of the food sovereignty ordinance did do, Schatz said, was let people know the value of farmers.
“It made an important statement to our community and to communities around here in terms of how we value farm products and what comes from our local farms,” he said. “Farms are very important features [and] businesses in Maine.”
The ordinances also remind people they have the right to exchange goods and services between each other, Evans said.
“Once you move into having a ‘middleman’ that is not part of this ordinance, that only covers the exchange of food between the grower [or] raiser and the consumer,” she said. “What in God’s name is wrong with me raising and butchering a dozen chickens and selling six to my neighbor?”
Bott said his department is not anti-local food production, but does want to make sure all food sold in Maine is safe for the consumer and they are willing to work with them by, among other things, testing products in a state laboratory.
“The department’s program provides startups with ‘fyi’ lab assistance for product testing so entrepreneurs will fully understand their product before they enter the full program and market,” he said.
Evans said she hopes proposed legislation such as LD 783, “A Resolution, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Establish a Right to Food,” sponsored by Rep. Craig Hickman of Winthrop, will help further codify rights to keep the state out of the local food production chain.
Evans said she hopes the food sovereignty ordinances make people stop and think about where their food comes from and how they acquire it.
“Acting on these ordinances gives people an opportunity to take a stand,” she said. “These ordinances underscore our inalienable and natural God-given right to choose the food we eat, grow, raise or acquire through barter or purchase.”