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Behind the News Feb 14, 2019

Casas, Watson say food sovereignty law could help small farmers

Rockport — Marci Casas, whose family has a working farm in Rockport, wants to be able to sell prepared jams and dill pickles without having the farm's kitchen licensed by the state.

Townspeople may be able to vote in June to enact an ordinance that would allow her to do that under the state's Food Sovereignty Act.

First, however, the proposed ordinance must be put on the ballot or town meeting warrant by selectmen. After hearing the proposal at a recent Select Board meeting, they sent it to the town attorney, who has raised concerns about the ordinance.

The concern the attorney raises is that the law states that direct producer-to-consumer transactions are allowed only at the site of production. In other words,under this provision, farmers and other food producers can sell food on their property, at a farm stand, for example, but not off-site at social events, fundraisers or farmers' markets.

"The ordinance goes beyond what is permitted in the law," said attorney Philip Saucier of Bernstein Shur in an email to Town Manager Rick Bates.

Casas and fellow food sovereignty advocate Jesse Watson disagree with that interpretation. They plan to start a petition drive to gather the signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot if selectmen do not vote to do so.

The Food Sovereignty Act, approved by the Legislature in 2017, allows municipalities to adopt ordinances that would exempt some prepared food items from the requirements of having a licensed kitchen. Watson worked with the City Council in Rockland to get the city's food sovereignty ordinance passed, which he said was a two-year process.

Watson said it is about reducing the barriers for farmers getting started in food sales, so they do not have to invest $20,000 in a steel kitchen. Casas agreed, saying it provides an opportunity for local producers to dabble in food sales and see if it's a business they want to invest in further.

Even with the ordinance, meat and poultry would require proper licensing and inspections, and local producers without licenses could not sell to restaurants or stores.

One of the questions raised by this is whether food is safe without the licensing requirements. Asked if residents should worry about buying food items at roadside stands, Casas said, "I would say no, because you know your neighbors."

Watson said a food sovereignty ordinance places responsibility on both producers and consumers to make informed decisions.

"Typically, it's not a good policy to poison your neighbors and your patrons," he said. "Anybody trying to make a go of selling value-added products will probably do their best to ensure the safety of that product."

For more information on the issue, visit localfoodrules.org.

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