Victory! A Food Sovereignty Win in Maine

Earlier this month, Betsy Garrold, the executive director of Food for Maine’s Future breathed a long, hard sigh of relief. “I sit at my computer with tears of joy running down my face. This has been a six year struggle against the corporate food monopolies to protect and enhance the traditional food-ways in our state,” Betsy reflected in a blog post on The Populist Farmer as news reached her that Maine’s Governor had signed into law LD 725, An Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems, or the “Food Sovereignty Law”. This groundbreaking victory for the food sovereignty movement requires the state government of Maine to recognize the authority of municipalities to regulate their local food economies.

This new law protects farmers in communities that have passed a local food sovereignty ordinance from state regulations, as long as they are engaged in face-to-face farm sales. For instance, a small farmer can sell chickens processed on her farm to her neighbors, or serve dairy products at a community event with less red tape. This is a big deal for small farmers and consumers, as state-level food safety regulations that have been crafted under the influence of agribusiness lobbies have made accessing markets difficult for small farmers due to expensive licensing and facility requirements.

At the forefront of this fight has been Local Food RULES, an organization consisting of local chapters of Food For Maine’s Future that worked to draft and pass the first Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance in Hancock County, Maine in 2011. Food for Maine’s Future, a member organization of the National Family Farm Coalition (which itself belongs to both La Via Campesina and the United States Food Sovereignty Alliance) and a longtime partner of WhyHunger, has been organizing for the past 11 years in rural communities to fight for food sovereignty. Local Food RULES and Food For Maine’s Future have helped organizers from municipalities across the state that have wanted to implement their own Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinances, resulting in 20 municipalities passing food sovereignty ordinances over the past 6 years.

These ordinances declare the right of those within the municipality “unimpeded access to local food” through direct face-to-face sales and sales and at community social events (food for wholesale or retail markets outside of its community of origin are excluded). These policies have helped strengthen local food and farm economies by allowing local farmers and local consumers more direct access to each other. However, towns that passed local food ordinances had been receiving letters from Maine’s Department of Agriculture, challenging the authority of those municipalities outlined in the local food ordinances. Now that the state food sovereignty law has been passed, those challenges are expected to cease.

This fight for a decentralized, locally-controlled food system in Maine was galvanized by the case of Dan Brown, a small farmer from Blue Hill, Maine, who was sued by the state in 2011 for selling raw milk at his farm stand without proper licensing or facilities that would’ve cost him to tens of thousands of dollars. Advocates for food sovereignty asserted that regulations like these, which were designed for larger agribusiness operations, were inappropriate for operations like Dan Brown’s one-cow farm and placed unreasonable barriers for beginning farmers.

Opponents of the state food sovereignty law, which included the large dairy and grocery manufacturer lobbies, used the argument that by not adhering to state regulations, local food ordinances presented a food safety risk. However, organizers have maintained that these small family farmers are feeding their families with the same food they are selling at market; “They know you, you know them and, frankly, poisoning your neighbors is a very bad business plan,” Garrold explained in an interview with the Maine Sun Journal.

This bill, introduced by Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson and strongly supported by Representatives Craig Hickman and Ralph Chapman, was the fourth attempt at passing a state-wide local food law. Although previous food sovereignty bills had passed both the house and the senate, they did not pass by a large enough margin to prevent them from being vetoed by Republican Governor Paul LePage. This time around, proponents made sure to get veto-proof majority, but were pleasantly surprised when LePage signed the bill into law.

This strategy for building towards food sovereignty provides an exciting model for other food sovereignty activists and organizers to draw lessons from. By organizing local grassroots efforts around municipal and state-level food sovereignty ordinances and legislation, organizers are affirming the “right of peoples to . . .define their own food and agriculture systems.” Organizers found that at the local level, the concept of food sovereignty resonated with people across the political spectrum, who understood that the “one size fit’s all” state food safety regulations designed for large farms and food processors, were actually harming small family farms and beginning farmers. They rallied support around the belief that those within the municipality should define the regulations around face-to-face sales of food as a means of supporting small family farms, local food traditions and sustainable agriculture in rural Maine. Since the bill was signed into law on June 16th, even more municipalities from across Maine have been reaching out to Food For Maine’s Future to support them in passing their own local food ordinances.

When drawing inspiration and lessons from the example of Maine, it’s important to keep in mind that other contexts may not be as conducive to achieving local control over food policy. Maine is a “Home Rule” state, meaning that Maine’s state constitution allows municipalities to amend their charters on any matter, as long as the changes don’t violate state laws or the U.S. Constitution. Organizers have used this as a legal justification for municipal authority over local food policy, which could be more difficult to do in other states. However, strategies similar to this could possibly be part of growing the movement for food sovereignty in the US. Even if one isn’t in a “home rule state”, organizations like the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund have helped to establish “home rule municipalities,” as a strategy to protect worker rights, environmental rights and the rights of nature from corporate exploitation at the local level.

As more of Maine’s municipalities pass their own food sovereignty ordinances, it will be exciting to see the impact these laws will have on local food and farm economies and on the success and spread of agroecological agriculture. We at WhyHunger are excited to see what the next steps will be for Maine’s food sovereignty movement and how other food sovereignty organizers will draw and implement lessons from this exciting process of building food sovereignty from the ground up.

Corbin Laedlein