Empowering the People to Nourish: Right to Food in the State of Maine

A Q&A with Maine’s State Representative Craig V. Hickman and Quill’s End Farm owner Heather Retberg

 

The state of Maine has been one of the pioneering states in the U.S. working on policies to ensure its population has the adequate tools to access nutritious food through direct farmer-to-consumer transactions. In 2017 Maine passed the Food Sovereignty Law, which according to a news article by Reason, allows local governments in the state to pass ordinances that exempt many direct-to-consumer food sales within city limits from burdensome state licensing and inspection requirements. Within the next few weeks, Maine may become the first state to institute a right to food in its State Constitution. Right to food is a part of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966. This multilateral treaty has been signed and ratified by 169 countries. While President Carter signed the covenant in 1977, many Americans may be surprised to learn that the US never ratified it, and often is hesitant in supporting UN ratifications that support this right, articles that aim to defend a right to food globally but often clash with policies instituted that give leeway for multi-national food and agribusiness to dictate the rules.

But what is the right to food? And what would mean to amend the constitution to include it as a guaranteed human right? The right to food, according to the FAO, is the human right to feed oneself with dignity, meaning that there is enough available food, that people can access it and that it provides individual dietary needs. Broader interpretations of the right to food include the right to secure an adequate income to purchase the food necessary to feed their families, and to acquire rights and access to the natural resources – land, water, seeds, biodiversity – to produce food.

There are different interpretations as to what actions, once the ICESCR has been ratified, a national government should take to fulfill their obligations, as the United Nations outlines them, to respect, protect and fulfill the right to food. Approximately 20 countries have enshrined the right to food in their national constitutions. Other countries are working towards the right to food more “progressively” by passing laws and creating policies that create an “enabling environment.” What the enabling environment looks like can take on many different and sometimes contradictory forms including reducing barriers to access land for food production, the establishment of private food markets, reduction of taxes on food commodities, incentives to support technological approaches to growing crops, and/or establishing a social safety net for the most vulnerable to hunger and under nutrition.

Vivi Jenkins, a 12-year-old resident of Maine, interprets the right to food as the freedom and dignity to grow, prepare and consume food: “if you have a garden and you know how to cook, then you can do wisdom from a young person simply and clearly states what state ratifies right to food constitutional amendment can mean. Enabling an environment where people have the power to nourish themselves.

As Heather Retberg from Quill’s End Farm states, “It’s been and continues to be an uphill road, but we really believe that a proactive measure with this kind of foresight is necessary and vital now.  As more corporate control infringes on our ability to grow our own food, access our own water, and feed ourselves, we will need this bulwark in place, so individual people have the legal rights secured and able to be protected/defended under the law.”

 

 “You can feed yourself. You can stand up for yourself.”

 

The State of Maine’s constitutional amendment (Article 1, §25) is enacted to read: “Section 25: Rights to food and food sovereignty and freedom from hunger. All individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to food, including the right to acquire, produce, process, prepare, preserve and consume the food of their own choosing by hunting, gathering and foraging with respect to natural regenerative capacity and sustainability; farming, fishing, gardening and saving and exchanging seeds or by barter, trade or purchase from sources of their own choosing, for their nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being, as long as an individual does not commit trespassing, theft, poaching or other abuses of private property rights, public lands or natural resources in the acquisition of food; furthermore, all individuals have a fundamental right to be free from hunger, malnutrition, starvation and the endangerment of life from the scarcity of or lack of access to nourishing food.”

To better comprehend what this Right to Food amendment could mean to the state of Maine, I interviewed two of Maine’s strongest advocates for the right to food constitutional amendment. Maine’s District #81 State Representative Craig V. Hickman, an organic farmer and strong advocate in the state to end hunger, and Heather Retberg, owner of Quill’s End Farm, a member of the Food For Maine’s Future (Partner of the National Family Farm Coalition), and active voice in the struggle for food sovereignty.

What were the steps to achieve this bill? How did we get here?

Heather Retberg: …{After failing to pass this bill in 2015}, we took a break from it and went back to the straightforward legislation on food sovereignty in order to get our state to recognize the local authority over our direct food exchanges and  that ended up passing in 2017. So this session we thought was probably worth another try, we revisited and amended the language a little bit and then put the bill in again and took a much quieter approach. We didn’t put out this big kind of public action calls or anything like that, but really had this discreet kind of collaborative work session with the legislative committee.

So that’s where we are right now, we have gone through the public hearings, to the work session, we achieved an “ought to pass” vote out of committee, it has not been reported out yet, but I think we are going to come out of committee with a 9-4 ought to pass vote.

Did Wyoming’s Food Freedom Law have any type of influence on the process in Maine?

Heather: That would go back to 2010-11 when we first started working towards food sovereignty in a sort of broad umbrella way of looking at this. – I would say in Maine we were working towards community self-governance as a way to basically secure [food sovereignty] and then from that foundation secure food freedom. So, we started working at the local level and writing local ordinances in our towns in Maine. At that point, Wyoming was working on its first draft of legislation for Food Freedom so their process did inform those original local ordinances in Maine. I think it took 3 or 4 times over 6-8 years to finally secure Food Freedom in their state legislation. In Maine we went in a little bit of a different direction and instead of having the State grant blanket exemptions for direct food exchanges, we really wanted to go a little bit deeper than that and secure a shift in how the decisions are getting made around those food exchanges and recognize that people have the right to define their own food system at the local level. So that’s what we did with the food sovereignty legislation in 2017 and there was some conversation with Frank Wallace in Wyoming, more so just for encouragement along the way in our slightly different paths.

What does it mean to change the state’s constitution in this way? To put in an amendment like this?

Craig V. Hickman: We would be the first state in the nation to take this approach by explicitly declaring that we have a right to food in our constitution in Maine. Our amendment is not about our government providing anything to people, it’s about getting out of the way so we can explicitly assert that right into our food acquisition choices so long as we are not breaking any clear laws of theft, or trespassing or poaching or abuses of private property rights, or public land for natural resources. So  this proposal takes a part of Article 1, Section 1 the first of the declaration ,which allows us to have a right to obtain safety and happiness and explicitly states that one of the ways that we get to do that is by having the right to the food of our own choosing and being free from hunger.

I think if we were to amend our constitution, or if the people were to ratify that constitutional amendment there would be a campaign. There would be a great discussion about what a right to food means, what it doesn’t mean, and how it becomes a foundation for moving forwards and making sure that we settle the question once and for all of ‘Do we have enough food to eat as people in this state? Why are there so many people who don’t have access to nutritious food?’ We need to solve that problem and the basis to solving that problem is to establish that food is a basic fundamental human right.

Who does this legislation impact? Is it for the overall population? Is it more for the local farmers and food producers that will have more leeway in how they sell their products? Is there going to be an implementation process of what a right to food means?

Heather: One thing that it will do is to secure a right for all individuals to make a claim or to have legal standing. . The way that the proposal for the constitutional amendment is worded is to secure the right that all individuals can be free from hunger but also free from laws or policies that will inhibit or prohibit their ability to feed themselves, so it is really for everybody. So in respect to something like saving and exchanging seeds, that will more narrowly apply to farmers more explicitly. But just like any of our other rights, i.e. freedom of speech, as Craig mentioned the first right in our Bill of Rights in Maine is about liberty, safety, happiness, like all of those are blanket rights and the way that is worded, again, is inherent and a natural right for all people and so it really is universally applicable.

Do you envision an educational component for people to understand this right?

Craig: I would say that will happen throughout the campaign before this goes onto the ballot, so if we assume that we will get the two thirds vote in the House and the Senate to send it to the people, then yes, there will be a campaign about educating people on what it is and what it isn’t and why it’s important and the opposition will say why it’s not. I think people get it at a very base level, most people actually think we already have this right.

Heather: In a way it seems like that. That is exactly why we wanted to do it, because most people do assume that we have this right. And then when they are tested by courts, people think they have the right to, say, grow a garden in their yard and they don’t and then they lose in court. For example, people think they have the right to exchange seeds and then in the state of New Mexico, the Department of Agriculture was successful in putting a line item in their budget to take over the sole regulation of seeds, saving and exchanging. And so thankfully people organized and their governor did a line item veto and then passed the budget. But had that [original seed law] passed, the people would have had no legal standing to defend a right that they assumed they had. By putting this in our constitution, when those challenges come and people say “well of course, I have a right to choose what food I eat” or “of course, I have the right to grow this plant,” now they will actually have legal standing to defend that claim and to secure that in a way that is not actually secured right now.

Do you anticipate any challenges from big food or big agribusiness?

Craig: Again, this is an extraordinary process, in Maine the only way that a resolution to the constitution can be amended is if it is presented by the legislature.  The only time we’ve seen the industry push back was when there was a misunderstanding about what the bill would do. It is not a piece of statute so it can’t actually change regulation or rule regarding anything. And I believe that is now understood more because it is our second go around at this, because we already have the Maine Food Sovereignty Act on the books. Now that it passed, communities can write ordinances where they decide how best to build their local food system surrounding ‘direct to consumer’ transactions – that’s settled law for now. I know that the industry had opposed this to begin with, and it doesn’t mean that they won’t oppose it again, but they haven’t been actually vocal about it because I think they understand that this doesn’t really affect anything that they are doing or not doing.

To what degree do you think this amendment will eradicate the root causes of hunger and/or poverty?

Craig: I have a bill on the governor’s desk right now that asks for all development agencies, stakeholders, and people in the state to sit down and draft a strategic plan to end hunger in Maine by 2030. That has to happen regardless of whether this constitutional amendment passes or not, because putting this amendment in the constitution) isn’t going to move policy forward all by itself. Not only does it become a foundation for having someone in a court who may feel that their right is infringed because of a municipal ordinance telling them they can’t grow on their front lawn; that’s standing in court, but a right defined in the constitution can become a foundation for public policy going forward as well.

I think the amendment is important because of what could or could not be coming down the pipe as we become more statist, and as more people look to centralize more authority in the hands of authoritarian institutions in a democratic republic, which is a contradiction but that’s what we are doing right now. So, food self-sufficiency, food security are issues of national security as much as anything else. And if Maine leads, and if we do this, I suspect other states might follow, and then we’ll see what kind of response the industry has if we start something that has a domino effect across the country.

But in it of itself, this constitutional amendment will not change that we need to do something strategically and comprehensively to end hunger in Maine.

So it’s more of having a protective amendment for what may come after.

Craig: As my mother would always say “we are giving ourselves ground to stand on.” I can stand on the ground of a constitutional amendment that I have the right to the food of my own choosing. And that means I can use that right to challenge anything that would make it seemas though that access to food of my own choosing is being taken away from me because of some state policy, or some municipal policy, or some federal law or rule or regulation. That goes above and beyond its purpose to protect the public’s health and becomes more of an agenda to control the flow of food and who gets what and who doesn’t.

Do you see any contradiction between having a food sovereignty allowance and having the State take charge on this? The difference – we are fighting for food sovereignty, but this is the State taking a stance on it, do you think there is any contradiction there?

Craig: No, not at all. All we are doing as policy makers is giving the people something so, they can decide for themselves. I can’t imagine anyone who is about self-governance would not vote for a constitutional amendment that says, ‘I have the right to the food of my own choosing and that I am personally responsible for that choice.’ I don’t see a contradiction between those two things because, again, the State legislature is the originator of all constitutional amendments in the state of Maine, and that is in our constitution.

All we are really doing is saying “Let’s send this to the voters and let them decide whether we want to update our constitution or not.” That can certainly have policy implications, but I think in this case, because we are amending a part of law that declares a fundamental right, we are going to the core of our constitution. We are putting it right in our Declaration of Rights, which just means that this is a right that we feel is so important that we had to explicitly declare it.

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The voting to amend the Right to Food in Maine’s State Constitution will be held within the next couple of weeks, to learn more about this bill you can visit this website. You can also visit the Food for Maine’s Facebook page for any additional info, updates or questions you may have.

 

Rep. Craig Hickman, an organic farmer, small business owner, chef, poet and author, is serving his fourth term in the 129th Legislature. He is House Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, where he champions food sovereignty, food security, food freedom, food processing infrastructure investments, and other efforts to protect Maine’s small family farms and promote rural economic development.

 

Heather Retberg is an active voice in the argument for food sovereignty and to seek municipal ordinances to protect traditional foodways. She is a participant in Farm Drop, an online farmers market serving the Blue Hill Peninsula. Her under-girding philosophy is simple: “All flesh is grass. All grass is soil.”

Joao Fonseca