Food: The New Local Sovereignty Frontier

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March 16, 2011; Source: Downeast News | What if federal and state food licensing regulations no longer applied? Would more people get sick from food-borne illnesses? Would more people get healthier by eating fresher food? Would small farms and home-based businesses proliferate and profit? Should nonprofits ever support using local ordinances to challenge broader regulations that impede mission progress?

The roughly 1,000 residents of Sedgwick, a mid-coastal Maine town, are about to find out. At last month’s town meeting, Sedgwick residents voted unanimously to exempt direct farm and home-kitchen processed foods from state and federal licensing and inspection. With passing of the “Local Food and Self-Governance Ordinance,” Sedgwick became the first town in Maine, to take on local regulation (or deregulation) of local food supply as a constitutional right.

Applying to products for home consumption and community events, the four page ordinance states that “we . . . have the right to produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume local foods thus promoting self-reliance, the preservation of family farms, and local food traditions . . . We hold that federal and state regulations impede local food production and constitute a usurpation of our citizens’ right to foods of their choice.”

The ordinance has been billed in the language of home rule, rural economic opportunity and public health, as well as constitutional rights. According to Bob St. Peter, a local farmer and advocate for the ordinance, it “creates favorable conditions for beginning farmers and cottage scale food processors to try out new products, and to make the most of each season’s bounty.”

The precedent-setting initiative has drawn an interesting mix of supporters to the table, including libertarians, rural developers, off-the-gridders, and sustainable agriculture advocates. Two other Maine towns have since followed in approving similar ordinances. It has not yet been challenged in court.

From a policy perspective, it’s interesting strategy to use a local ordinance to address regulatory barriers for local action. However, local efforts to override state and federal policies can cut like a two edged sword, undermining locally unpopular but nationally vetted goals.—Kathi Jaworski