The “food sovereignty” ball is rolling in Union and Knox County, at large. Players in Union’s municipal government, in the Maine Legislature, and Knox County are working to make food, food production, and food sales more local and, as a result, more accessible for local farmers, producers, and buyers alike.

What does “food sovereignty” mean? What does a “food sovereignty ordinance” do? Why do citizens of Maine feel these legislations are important and impactful?

Food Sovereignty ordinances are all about the direct, producer-to-consumer sales of food on the local level without the burden of licenses and inspections.

What is food sovereignty?

Food sovereignty, as a principle, is most prominently the belief that everyone has a “right” to healthy and accessible food. This principle has been incorporated in Maine’s legislation over the years. In fact, legislators have even attempted to establish the right to food as an amendment to the Maine State Constitution.

There are a number of philosophies upon which food sovereignty is grounded, according to advocacy organization Global Justice Now, that speak to the “right to food” for all, giving control over the food industry back to local farmers and workers, and protecting the environment.

Local farmer, Union-resident, and Appleton Town Clerk, Lizzie Dickerson, said that the “core” of the movement in Maine is “understanding that community is a lot more important than making bucks.” To Dickerson, this happens by going back to a “simpler way” of arranging food systems by “knowing your farmer and knowing the process that goes into making the goods that you’re purchasing.”

Bill Lombardi, a small-scale farmer, Union selectman, and one of the Select Board representatives on Union’s food sovereignty ordinance committee, prefers the term “local food” over food sovereignty and sums it up in one word: “trust.”

“I look at it as local food being sold to local people. Know your customer. They trust you,” Lombardi said. “People trust us. They know we're not going to poison someone.”

As a legislative movement, which went into effect under the Maine Food Sovereignty Act in November of 2017, it becomes legal for “producers” to sell food, without licenses or certifications, directly to “consumers.”

The state also commits “to encourage food-self sufficiency for its citizens” and “promote self-reliance and personal responsibility” of Maine consumers. Though it’s not the first ‘food freedom’ legislation in America, Maine’s act is the first in the nation to put control over food sovereignty back in the hands of its local municipalities.

What do food sovereignty laws and the resulting system look like in Maine?

Local food ordinances already exist in four of Knox County’s 18 municipalities — Appleton, Rockland, Isle Au Haut, and Hope. Union will be the fifth town in Knox County if residents vote in favor of the ordinance, which has just been drafted in a committee.

Because the MFSA was written under Maine’s “home rule” guidelines, the onus is on the municipality (and its residents) to write, pass, and enact a food sovereignty ordinance. That means you cannot legally sell food without a license unless your town has passed an ordinance in the June town meeting (this year, a town election). Conversely, you cannot legally purchase from a food producer without a license if they live in a town without the ordinance.

In a town with this ordinance, you can legally sell any food except meat and poultry products on your property. These kinds of foods include, but are not limited to, home-grown vegetables, dairies, and baked goods. As a consumer, you can now purchase most foods from your neighbor, the farm stand you pass on the way home from work, or the local school kids running a lemonade-and-ginger-cookies stand every Friday.

This issue of food safety, protecting consumers and a potentially liable town government, has been raised by opponents of food sovereignty in Union. They have concerns about how the MFSA allows producers to operate without licenses and the required regulations, such as using a commercial kitchen, for food production.

The insurance of safety goes back to the core principles of “trust,” according to multiple people interviewed.

District 95 State Rep. Bill Pluecker described the process as “being your own inspector.” He believes this is feasible because the act requires that consumers purchase directly from the producer(s) and, as a result, “you always have access to the site of production and the person who is producing it.”

“Somebody could come to me and buy milk, for example, if I wasn't state licensed. They could ask me, ‘hey can I see your cows? Are they clean? Can I see the place where you milked your cow? Is it clean? Can I see where you bottled the milk, is that clean? How did you wash this bottle before you gave it to me? Are you sure this bottle wasn't contaminated before you put the milk in?’” explained Pluecker.

Similarly, “If you don't trust me or my wife to give you something that's not going to poison you or make you sick, then don't buy it,” Lombardi said.

While right now “we trust our government to regulate [food production facilities] accordingly to keep us safe,” Pluecker said this ordinance “would give you the opportunity to be responsible for your own safety.”

What are the effects of enacting a food sovereignty ordinance?

Looking at the short-term effects, enacting a food sovereignty ordinance is an immediate expansion on the freedoms of Mainers and their right to economic choice.

Residents do not need to worry about any immediate “financial impact” either, such as tax increases, according to Lombardi. As a result, if this is not a movement or food system you wish to take part in, advocates believe you will not be affected by it.

Both Lombardi and Pluecker emphasized that bringing food sovereignty to Maine will be a long-term investment into the local and agricultural economies.

Lombardi sees this ordinance as an “economic business incubator” that can galvanize the growth of new, small businesses. He referenced a resident in Hope who began selling cakes under the rules of the town’s local food ordinance and is now expanding her business as proof in the pudding.

“People starting out could possibly turn [their farming and food production] into a viable business. If they can see that they can make money on this, then they will go get licensed and they'll start a business and they'll add to the local economy,” he explained. “It gives the small guy a fighting chance where they don't have to come up with a few thousand dollars and jump through administrative hoops to get a business started.”

Certificate programs, licenses, and regulations are expensive and, as a result, usually profitable only for large farms who can afford to sell products at low prices. Pluecker hopes that freeing small-scale farmers from these costly encumbrances will combat the disappearance of Maine’s rural, mid-size dairy farms which crumbled under the “incredible stress” of competing, on the national level, against large dairy farms with “1,000-cow dairy herds” and low pricing.

Pluecker predicts food sovereignty will change agricultural, dairy, and food markets.

He envisions this as a “transition” to “niche markets [and] niche producers who can sell to people here in Maine … that you can charge a little bit more money for, but on a smaller scale so that you're still able to make enough money for yourself as a farmer and as a family, but you have less capital invested.”

What is the history of food-sovereignty legislation in Maine?

Food Sovereignty ordinances became possible after "An Act To Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems, LD-725, renamed “The Maine Food Sovereignty Act” was signed into law in 2017. The bill was sponsored by newly-elected State Sen. Craig Hickman (D-Kennebec) and State Sen. Troy Jackson (D-Aroostoock.)

Maine’s food sovereignty movement faced a setback regarding local sales of meat and poultry after the passing of the MFSA when the federal government interfered in July of 2017. In a special legislative session, Former Gov. Paul LePage revealed that the Dept. of Agriculture notified him that if Maine did not comply with “regulations at least equal to the federal regulations for livestock and poultry slaughter and processing” the state inspection permit would be terminated.

Pluecker explained that this means, “the USDA said that if you pass this and start selling backyard chicken, [the department] will no longer cooperate with Maine in state meat inspections and [Maine] would lose the ability to ship Maine-state-inspected meat across state lines.”

As a result, the legislature passed an exception to the MFSA regarding meat and poultry sales in order to comply with USDA regulations. Pluecker hopes that there will be a future in Maine’s food sovereignty movement where the state can “legally work with the USDA and be able to still produce our backyard meat for our neighbors.” But ultimately, the representative believes that the priority is ensuring Maine can still participate in the nationwide agricultural industry and food chain.

Consequently, the Maine Food Sovereignty Act instead makes legal the direct producer-to-consumer sale of all locally-produced foods, excluding meat and poultry.

Though Democrats largely championed the MFSA, Pluecker said that the principles of the MFSA are largely bipartisan. In fact, LePage signed the bill into law during a time in which he was intentionally vetoing most Democrat-sponsored bills.

“The ideologies [of those who support food sovereignty] … can be people who are worried about food insecurity. It can also be people who are worried about government overreach and overregulation,” Pluecker explained. “It brings together a wide group of people, which is great… People might want it for different reasons but everybody in the end wants it.”

Simply put, “we all eat. Whether you call yourself being on the left or being on the right, we all like three meals a day,” said Lombardi.

What’s in store for Maine’s food sovereignty movement in the future?

Pluecker said that there are currently two bills in the works in the Maine State Legislature that will alter the guidelines of the Maine Food Sovereignty Act and make it more widely accessible and effective.

One, put out by State Senator Lisa Keim (R-Oxford), would allow for producers without a license to legally sell seeds alongside other food products.

The other, which Pluecker has written, would do two things. First, it would extend the privilege to enact a food sovereignty ordinance to unincorporated territories (alongside municipalities). The second objective would change the requirements for the site of transaction.

As it stands, food can only be sold on the property where it was produced. If Pluecker’s bill passes, producers can sell their products anywhere “in the town that is mutually agreed upon by the consumer and the producer.” This would mean that local farmers could also sell their food, without licenses, at events like farmer’s markets and church suppers.

Incorporating this into the MFSA would ensure that the state cannot take action to block these sales, though Pluecker says “a lot of municipal ordinances allow it currently.”

The legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry committee is also preparing to vote on a new version of the resolution “Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Establish a Right to Food.” If it makes it through votes in the committee and both chambers of the Maine State Legislature, adopting the amendment will be an issue on November’s ballot.

Ultimately, food sovereignty advocates are hopeful that this new “model” will bolster Maine and make food more accessible in a time when issues like the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn have put even more stress on food production and the people who make it happen.

Pluecker and Lombardi certainly envision long-term hopes and futures that reinvigorate Maine’s industries. Whether or not these visions pan out, Dickerson believes the immediate effects of food sovereignty in Union, Knox County, and Maine, at large, will be swift and impactful: the local economy will soon grow and the people struggling to get by financially will be able to add some extra “butter and egg money” to their income.

Dickerson believes many would agree that “we want people working, don't we?”