Towns in Maine Declare Food Sovereignty With Local Ordinances

CC BY 2.0. Paul VanDerWerf

In an effort to support local food production and defend customers' rights to buy and eat whatever local farm products they want, 16 towns in Maine have created their own local food ordinances.

The food industry has become highly regulated in recent decades, as legislators create laws surrounding food production in order to protect the health of consumers. While these laws are well-meaning, there are many consumers who find them to be frustrating and stifling. Particularly for those people who live in agricultural areas, it can be infuriating to be told you’re not allowed to buy raw milk or home-butchered chickens from a neighbor, even if you’ve known the farmer for years and trust his or her methods.

In 2010, when state and federal agencies passed laws curtailing what local farmers could sell directly to customers, a group of local food supporters in Hancock County, Maine, decided to take matters into their own hands. They drafted and signed the state’s first food sovereignty ordinance. The ordinance was approved at a town meeting, and soon nearby communities followed suit. Now, 16 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.

Bangor Daily News reports: “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.”

There are disagreements over how much power these local ordinances possess. John Bott, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, argues that local ordinances do not take have power over state laws. Bott uses the example of a 2014 court proceeding in which the Department fought with a farmer over the right to sell raw milk. The final decision stated, “Local ordinances are valid only when not preempted by state law.”

On the other hand, local food advocate Deborah Evan argues that “the ‘home rule’ provision of the state constitution gives residents the right to enact ordinances ‘local and municipal in character’” (Bangor Daily News). Despite this, Evans does acknowledge that the ordinances are largely symbolic.

Symbolism has power nonetheless and these local ordinances communicate an important message to federal and state agencies about what matters to customers these days. We want to know who is making our food and where it comes from. These questions go beyond the nutrition labels and basic information provided at the grocery store and show officials that it’s time to start digging deeper.

Not least of all, these local ordinances show that farmers really matter. They shine the spotlight on the unsung heroes of our daily lives – the people who grow and make the food that sustains us. The ordinances are not just about customers being able to buy what they want, but also about these farmers being free to sell the products they make.