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'Food Freedom' Advocates Claim Victory in Maine

The state is the latest to pass a food sovereignty law that allows consumers to buy food directly from farmers.

Last month, Maine’s Governor Paul LePage signed into law a bill that gives municipalities the power to regulate direct farm-to-consumer sales within their own borders. It’s the third so-called “food freedom” bill—also often called “food sovereignty” bills—to successfully make its way into state law in the U.S.: the first one was signed in Wyoming in 2015, and the second in North Dakota this past April. A wide range of regulations can fall under the term food freedom, including cottage food lawsthat allow home cooks to sell their products to the public or donate rescued food without fear of liability. But food freedom proponents are hailing Maine’s new law as a groundbreaking win, and one they hope is emblematic of the future success of their movement.

The new Maine law is the first to allow municipalities to enforce their own food regulations. In each town or city that passes an ordinance, farmers can now sell their products directly to consumers. But, by potentially bypassing state and federal licensing and inspections that pertain to foods like raw milk, some food safety experts are concerned that the new law may sidestep important food safety precautions.

The effort to pass the bill was spearheaded by Betsy Garrold, president of the board of the nonprofit farmers’ advocacy organization Food for Maine’s Future. “We see [food freedom] as necessary to protecting traditional foodways in Maine, which have been the backbone of the local economy forever,” she said. That economy became threatened in 2009, says Garrold, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “started beefing up its regulatory muscle nationwide. They suddenly came down the driveway and said, ‘You can no longer have a farm store on your farm,’” Garrold said. The USDA’s crackdown was followed in 2011 by the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the most significant effort to change food safety laws in the last 70 years. Critics like Garrold saw FSMA as part of a governmental bid to make raw milk sales illegal.

Originally, Garrold set her sights on changing regulations for the entirety of Maine—this would have put it in line with Wyoming and its Food Freedom Act, which allows unlicensed sales from farm to consumer statewide. “We’d get bills through the committees in the House and Senate and on to the governor’s desk, and then he’d veto them,” she said. Despite broad-based bipartisan support, “we were losing,” she said.

Instead, Garrold and her fellow advocates turned their attention to the task of helping towns and cities to pass their own ordinances. By 2017, 20 had done so, and three others signaled their interest in hyper-localized food freedom by passing resolutions in support of it.

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