The residents of Maine made their voices heard last November in a first-of-its-kind constitutional amendment to help small-scale food producers within the state. The “right to food” bill passed via statewide referendum, with Mainers voting in favor of what supporters describe as an opening up of existing restrictions that had previously favored industrial, corporate farming entities over individuals who preferred to feed themselves and their communities.
As is now inscribed into the state constitution, the amendment “declares that all individuals have a natural, inherent, and unalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce, and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health, and well-being.”
While critics claimed that the amendment represents a reckless degree of deregulation within the state food supply, advocates argue that this change is a win for individual liberties and is in line with the ethos of what it means to be a resident of Maine and America by extension. “It’s always a good idea to secure and protect an individual right in the world we live in. Food is life,” said Sen. Craig Hickman, a longtime backer of the bill. “I don’t understand why anyone would be afraid of saying so out loud in the constitution.”
Passing the amendment was a significant collaborative effort between unlikely allies behind the scenes. Although there were many usual suspects like small farmers and raw milk advocates in the mix, others included government officials. It appears as though the broad appeal of food freedom is the root cause of this, resulting in genuine small-government types finding their interests aligned with representatives.
This amendment is likely the final step for a state food sovereignty movement built on the foundational law of the same name passed in 2017. The law allowed local municipalities to permit small food producers to sell their goods to the public as long as the operation harvested and sold the food within their property, something no state had ever done before. While the language of the amendment allows for a relatively broad degree of legal interpretation, it likely eliminates the need for the individual producers to seek permission from municipalities that previously were able to dictate whether or not an applicant got the green light.
The referendum was not without detractors. There have been voices at different levels of government expressing concern for what this could mean for Maine regarding food safety. Opponents of the effort feared that allowing a free-for-all among small unregulated farms means an increased risk of toxic or spoiled food being sold to and consumed by unwitting state residents. In their eyes, the stranglehold that large businesses had on the food supply in Maine was a small price to pay for that peace of mind.
However, the coronavirus pandemic impacted that status quo, exposing gaps in the food supply chain nationwide, and Maine was no exception. Right-to-food proponents have argued that these gaps would not have been so prevalent under the amendment, as individuals found themselves legally barred from helping to feed their nearby communities without approval. As the pandemic continues, proponents say state residents are better equipped to handle food insecurity without risking fines and other legal ramifications for doing their part to be better neighbors.