Why Mainers Should Vote YES to Right to Food

Why Mainers Should Vote YES to Right to Food

The Maine people face a critical choice and historic moment this November, to amend their constitution to declare that they have a natural inherent and unalienable right to food. The resolution that the voters will ratify was finally passed after three tries over six years, by 73% of the Maine house and 70% of the Maine Senate this past summer. Now Maine voters will decide if they want to enshrine the right to grow and access the nourishing food of their choosing, with dignity and self-determination in the constitution of the State of Maine.

Host: Alison Cohen, WhyHunger.org

Guests: Senator Craig Hickman, Heather Retberg

Produced by: Deborah Hill

Interview Summary

America was founded on human rights. The right to speak out, to organize, to worship, but what we still haven’t secured is the right to food. Although a signatory, the United States has famously declined to ratify the international covenant on economic, social, and cultural rights, which recognizes the right to food. As one of four countries in the world who have signed but not ratified, the US sites existing protections against hunger and food insecurity in Federal long.

Over the past couple of years, a national alliance has been emerging to change that, and seek to amend state constitution to include the right to food. This group of advocates, state legislators, legal experts, community organizers, food and farm organizations, and those with lived experience of hunger, are coming together as a national community of practice to take action in their respective states towards securing constitutional amendments for the right to food. First is the state of Maine.

Prior to the pandemic, the US Department of Agriculture reported that 13.6% of Maine households are food insecure, a rate far higher than the national average of 11.7%. We can safely assume that figure is higher now due to the pandemic, if Maine is tracking with the rest of the United States.

The Maine people face a critical choice and historic moment this November, to amend their constitution to declare that they have a natural inherent and unalienable right to food. The resolution that the voters will ratify was finally passed after three tries over six years, by 73% of the Maine house and 70% of the Maine Senate this past summer. Now Maine voters will decide if they want to enshrine the right to grow and access the nourishing food of their choosing, with dignity and self-determination in the constitution of the State of Maine.

Welcome to “Rights Not Charity.” This podcast series is about a big idea, ensuring everyone has enough food. Not as a charitable gift, but as a fundamental human right. My name is Alison Cohen, and I’m the Senior Director of Programs at WhyHunger, a global nonprofit organization working to end hunger and advance the human right to nutritious food in the US and around the world.

Senator Craig Hickman is a Harvard graduate and a local business owner, running a successful organic farm and bed and breakfast with his husband. He served in the Maine House of Representatives for eight years, sponsoring fighting for measures that promote food sovereignty, protect individual rights and civil liberties, combat poverty and hunger, and support rural economic development. Senator Hickman currently represents Senate District 14 in Maine. He is the first black lawmaker in Maine to serve in both chambers of the legislature. He first introduced the bill that we’re going to discuss today to the legislature in 2015. Welcome, Senator Hickman, and congratulations on clearing the legislative hurdles so that the people of Maine can decide the future of food and farming in their state.

Sen. Craig – Thank you, Alison, it’s great to be here.

Alison – Heather Retberg, our other guest, is a farmer and homeschooling mother in Penobscot, Maine. Together with her husband, Phil, they live and work on Quill’s End Farm, a grass-based farm and micro dairy. The health of the animals they raise and the nutrient dense food they produce is rooted in ecologically healthy, regenerative stewardship of the land. Quill’s End Farm has been a leader in the efforts for food sovereignty in Maine toward community self-determination, food exchanges, seeking to protect traditional food ways, increase access to Maine raised food, and encourage more community-based food production. Heather is also a member of Food for Maine’s Future, a community-based organization, working to build solidarity and alliances between rural people in Maine and around the world. Their farmer members have been pushing the local foods movement to incorporate issues like land reform and the need for political organizing to push back against the well-funded agribusiness lobby.

Heather and Senator Craig Hickman have been co-designers and tireless advocates in the State of Maine for food sovereignty. The constitutional resolution for the right to food is a key stepping stone to securing food sovereignty in the State of Maine. Welcome to you, Heather.

Heather – Thank you, Alison. It’s good to be with you.

Alison – So, let’s get started, let’s have this conversation. The right to food as a concept and practice goes beyond the right to be free from hunger. It encompasses such qualities as dignity, adequacy, and sufficient income, so that food isn’t in competition with other essential needs such as healthcare and housing. The US does not legally protect the right of people to feed themselves according to these particular qualities, if it did, I would argue, we wouldn’t see rates of hunger hovering at 11% of the population over the past four decades. The right to food ballot question is at its core about freedom of choice and accessing nourishing food. If Mainers vote “Yes” on the ballot question on November 2nd, what will it mean for Mainers’ freedom of choice in accessing nourishing food? Can we start with you, Craig?

Sen. Craig – I don’t know that most people know this, but in 2010, The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates 80% of our nation’s food, declared in US court that people “Have no fundamental right to obtain and consume the food they wish, and therefore have no fundamental right to their own bodily and physical health.” They also claimed that there was no deeply rooted historical tradition of unfettered access to foods of all kinds. I think that the people of Maine would take issue with that.

But our own bodily and fiscal health is not our own when the government agency that increasingly controls more and more of our food supply states that our right to our own health, our right to feed ourselves and our families, the food we want to eat is not a fundamental right of liberty. And when that agency prevails in court, because for the time being, the rule of law backs them up, well, the people are not well-served.

Most people don’t know that they don’t have a right to the food of their own choosing. The people thought they did. If they knew this phantom right was being stripped away, little by little, and in some cases by leaps and bounds, on what legal ground will we stand if we cannot obtain the food we wish to eat, if you can’t get your favorite food anymore from your favorite farmer, because your farmer has gone out of business.

In the last 10 years, we have seen dozens of farm raids around the country. We have seen states suing farmers, farm customers suing states to establish their rights to acquire the food they wish. We have seen multi-national biotechnology corporations suing farmers for patent theft. We have seen seeds become the legal property of those same corporations here in Maine. We have seen an overly aggressive regulatory body tell farmers to their face that they will take their food away from them or find them because they have run a file of the law. We are losing access to the food we desire to the integrity of our food and to our own bodily and physical health. So if we vote to protect our right to the food of our own choosing by ratifying this constitutional amendment at the ballot box, we will shift the power away from corporations and toward the people. And I simply can’t think of anything more important to Maine people than independence and liberty and freedom to work out their nutritional regimen as they see fit.

Alison – Heather, you’ve been involved in this advocacy issue for quite some time yourself, and I’d like to invite you to share your vision and understanding of this right to food amendment from a farmer’s perspective and from your experience in walking along this path, alongside Craig for the last 10-11 years.

Heather – It’s interesting to hear you frame the question that way. It doesn’t seem like it’s been 10 or 11 years, in a way it feels like we just started, and it also feels like we’ve been doing it forever. I came to this work, not at all as an advocate, but just as a farmer. The experience on our farm is our state’s regulatory agency was such that in 2009, we were going to have to either stop several of the primary enterprises that we were doing, or be mandated to build infrastructure that was beyond the scale of our farm to afford, but also to sustainably continue. So I came into it thinking that our inspector had said that we should just go to our State Capitol and weigh in the process because lawmakers needed to hear from farmers before they changed the rules. So I came into it thinking that it was really about scale appropriate regulation, and that we just had to communicate with our legislators because they couldn’t see what was happening out in the field, away from the State Capitol. But what I found out as it went along was that wasn’t really at all the case.

The more we asked questions about who is making those decisions and why didn’t the people have a voice anymore, and why were we being administratively redefined. We came to understand that by losing the ability to not just control, but even have access to language and how we were defined, small farms could very easily disappear from the landscape. And indeed that is what had been happening in rural Maine for the last 60 years.

So through that legislative process, we were exposed to a different idea and that was to instead work with our own community, to define ourselves and define our own food exchanges. And as we did that, again, we just kept asking questions, who’s making the decisions right now? Who do those decisions benefit? What kind of relationships did we want to have in our community? And then how would we enshrine those values into law? And the further along we went, the more the conversation shifted away from a regulatory framework and more and more into an understanding that what we were talking about was rights. That people were losing the access to the food of their choosing. Losing access to healthful food. And we became pretty convinced that we needed to regain a voice in the decision-making that was some counterbalance to the industrial lobbyists, the grocery lobbies, the dairy lobbies, all of those better funded groups that because of their funding had more access to legislators and then also more access to law.

So instead we came to our towns. We drafted local laws that represented the values and the relationships we were trying to maintain. And then over time, that led to meeting now Senator Craig Hickman and the then governor’s office. We started working together and really kicking around how do we regain this power that we’ve lost to define ourselves and our food exchanges. After food sovereignty was recognized by our state legislature in 2017, we went back to thinking about this rights-based framework and working on language to ensure that in the most foundational, most powerful form of law that exists: a constitutional amendment in our Bill of Rights that we could ensure that people would have a right to food. That people would have a right to save and exchange seeds. And that people would have a right to grow and raise and produce and consume foods that they’re choosing for their own health. And really regain that agency that this shift in power towards corporate control of our food supply and our food policy had stripped from us. So that was how I came into it.

Alison – It’s so inspiring and deeply nuanced, I think the way in which this has evolved and gotten to this point. When we were pretty comfortable, I think in the US and talking about civil and political rights, but deeply uncomfortable talking about economic rights, meanwhile, or maybe I should say all the while, corporations are gaining more and more in power. So at core, I am getting to understand this effort around a constitutional amendment on the right to food to be about so much more than the very, very important and necessary work of abating hunger. The right to food, this constitutional amendment, it’s had legislative supporters, Craig, as I understand it, on both sides of the political aisle. Including Republican congressperson, Billy Bob Faulkingham, who was a co-sponsor of the bill. And often as we know, by inserting human rights into a political discussion, especially if we’re talking about economic, social or cultural rights, there’s a fairly predictable rift that emerges along party lines. So how have you overcome that hurdle in debate and in the dialogue since the beginning of your advocacy for this amendment? And why do you believe the right to food fundamentally should be a nonpartisan issue?

Sen. Craig – Anybody who wants to live needs to eat. So that covers Republicans and Democrats and unenrolled voters. It covers libertarians and democratic socialists and any other political identification people have, green independent we have in Maine, it goes on. If you want to live, you need to eat.

Politics is strange. Representative, Billy Bob Faulkingham is a Republican who put this bill in because I wasn’t in the legislature when it was introduced this time. Because I had termed out of the house and was not running for the Senate, I actually came into the Senate in a special election. And so once I arrived in the Senate, this bill had received more votes in the House of Representatives that it had ever had before. And a lot of that had to do with the fact that a Republican this time sponsored it. And so he brought more members of his party to the table. They wouldn’t vote for it when I introduced it, but they voted for it when he introduced it. So you can interview those folks to figure out what changed their minds, because the language of the resolution remains exactly the same. But again, that’s politics.

The policy is good, this shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It’s a basic human right. Protecting my right to choose my body’s food. I can’t imagine why anyone would deny that. The more food choices we have, the more food producers we have, the more community embedded food options, increased food production, the availability and accessibility of food, food price competition. And that will benefit everyone, including the hungry.

Thirty years ago, maybe more, the people of this state through their representatives put into law that it is the policy of the state to be food self-sufficient, and that means all things. It means we’re supposed to buy most of our food for our institutions, the Maine farmers and food producers. And it means that individuals should be able, to the extent possible, to provide for themselves the food they wish to eat. If they can’t grow it, and if they can’t produce it, then they clearly want to be able to find it around them. We have food deserts in Maine. Washington County in particular like none you’ve ever seen. And while that is the policy of the state, we still import 90% of the food we consume. And as Heather said, that it has a lot to do with food policy that has been directed by government agencies that have been co-opted regulatory capture by corporations.

It’s sorry to say, but having served on the committee that oversees our food supplies for six years and having chaired the committee on the house side for two terms, I can tell you unequivocally, the Department of Agriculture Conservation and Forestry exists to protect corporate interests. It says that it cares about the people, but I passed the law four years ago that required the department to do a public relations campaign, to promote food self-sufficiency for the people. And it was framed around the idea of Victory Gardens and all of that after World War II, where the USDA ran a public campaign, to make sure that people were growing their backyard gardens and raising their backyard pigs and chickens. I wanted the State of Maine to run a similar program for the time to allow for folks to understand that, to combat hunger and to decrease our reliance on food from away that people really did need to get involved in community gardens and to the extent that they could, wherever they lived, if their zoning allowed for it to grow their own food. We funded it in the legislature, but the department never implemented that program. And so it tells me that it wasn’t interested in doing what the people asked it to do to its representatives. And so we find ourselves having to take back all of our own power. Fannie Lou Hamer said it, if you can grow your own food and feed yourself, nobody can push you around and tell you what to do.

Mainers are by nature a libertarian people. We don’t want anyone to tell us what to do. We believe in live and let live, so long as I’m not hurting anybody else, I should be able to do whatever I want. Food is life, and if you have a right to life, we have a right to food. And that means we have a right to the food and we wish to eat for our own bodily health and wellbeing. And I can’t imagine a more non-partisan issue than that.

Alison – There’s so much about this effort that is about restoring democracy in many, many ways. It’s really about looking at where the power sits, and if it’s not with the people, it’s not ultimately democracy. So, many, many different tributaries I think we could go down here, but our time is short. And so I do have another question, Heather, what message do you want to convey to voters in Maine on the ballot question they’ll be considering in November? Why should they vote “Yes” for the right to food constitutional amendment?

Heather – There are so many good reasons to do this that it sometimes can be hard to distill them. And I am notorious for speaking in paragraphs and not short sentences. I’m going to try. I’ve heard that said, I think maybe by you before, Alison, but that this really is a watershed moment in our nation’s history. And certainly Maine has this opportunity to lead the way in securing the right to food in our constitution. We know from prohibition times as Maine goes, so goes the nation.

The other bullet points, if I may, are just that this absolutely shifts the concentration of power from the corporations that control our food supply to us as individuals. And it really secures our agency, our liberty, and it gives us as individual citizens, a greater voice in the decision making. Not just about our food, but about the relationships that we have with each other in our communities.

It’s important to know that a right enumerated is to protect individuals, not a provision from the government. If you look at the other rights, there are 24 right now in our Bill of Rights in Maine, it’s about the government securing and protecting legal space. But it doesn’t provide guns, for example, though we have the right to keep and bear arms. It doesn’t tell people what they should say, though we have the freedom of speech. It doesn’t dictate what type of religion, though we have the freedom of religion. So the same is true for food. And then it becomes a metric to inform and guide lawmaking and policy priorities, but it doesn’t make law and policy. And that I think is really important when we think about a future vision that is about a much more food-resilient Maine and thinking about what that might look like with town planning, edible landscapes, and compost, and collecting rainwater and all those things. So just people know, it exists to secure our individual rights. It’s not a provision from the government and I am going let Craig share the slogan that I think it’s important for people to hear as right to that.

Sen. Craig – You mean the one that goes something like, “The right to food is right for me, vote yes on question three?”

Heather – Yes.

Alison – Can you say that again, Craig? Can you just say that again, loud and proud?

Sen. Craig – The right to food is right for me, vote yes on question three.

Alison – That’s awesome, thank you both so much. I wanted to just end on this reflective note. Heather, I’ve been reading your Quills End Farm newsletters over the last year or so, as I’ve gotten to know you better. And you included a quote in your most recent newsletter that I’d love to hear your thoughts on. The quote was from Nelson Mandela, and it came at the tail end of your announcement to the readers of your newsletter, that this amendment passed both legislative bodies would be on the ballot box in November. And the quote reads, “It always feels impossible until it’s done.” How was this reflective of your experience to date in your advocacy work in particular? And how might it inspire the folks who are listening, who are also advocating for a rights not charity approach to ending hunger and protecting community food systems in their own states?

Heather – A dear friend of mine and fellow advocate, Bonnie Preston, especially after losses would say that to me. She said, “Remember, Heather, it always feels impossible until it’s done.” It could be one of our downfalls, but I tend to approach this work with great humility. And sometimes that can lead to a feeling of it’ll never happen. The forces against us are too great. There’s the department, there’s the all the food lobbies, there’s the industrial farm organizations. But really, I think what comes to light when I think about that is this moment when, back in the beginning in 2011 or 2012, my colleague, Bonnie, invited then Congressman Mike Michaud to come to our area. And we invited him to grange in North Blue Hill. And somebody asked the question, just point blank, “When do you think the Congress is gonna recognize food sovereignty?” And Mike Michaud looked at me and it was clear that food sovereignty was a foreign language, he didn’t know the words or what they meant. And when I gave him a nutshell definition on the side there that it was about self-determination of food supply. He looked back at the questioner and he just kind of laughed because it was so impossible, there’s no way that would happen.

So those were kind of the moments when the mountain appeared most of the time, we just kept stepping one step at a time and stayed on the path. But there were definitely times when those mountains became visible and each time we tried, more people joined and still, and yet we would lose. And each time we won, it felt like could have lost, it could have gone a different way if it hadn’t been for this one person who really believed in having that one more conversation with their representative or their Senator. And then those legislators, it always took people who are willing to stand up to their party and work against the party for the constituents or for the principles of the thing. It was impossible until it happened.

Alison – Let’s get it done, right?

Sen. Craig – Let’s do it.

Alison – Craig, do you have any final thoughts before we wrap up?

Sen. Craig – Just to sort of extend that, you have to fight misinformation all the time. Throughout this process, we’ve heard everything from this right, if it is declared in our constitution, we’ll preempt and, or overturn every single law, rule, regulation, municipal ordinance, zoning requirement out there, all of that is false. The declaration of a right does not touch statute or ordinance. Those are also legal instruments. Everything will remain the same unless, or until someone challenges something and maybe a court will say, “Yeah, maybe you did go a little too far with that regulation or that rule.” But unless or until that happens, nothing changes.

We are putting solid ground into our constitution. Quite frankly, it should be article 2A of our Declaration of Rights. It should come directly after all power is inherent in the people. As farmers, everything happens from the ground up except for rain, and this is where we put our feet in solid ground. And we put that into a constitution that would have never imagined needing it.

When the founders drafted the words of our constitution, they all fed themselves. And so nobody ever thought we would have to defend this right until we now realize we do. And Maine is at the end of the line, and we always have to remember that we cannot take our food supply for granted. When the trucks stop coming, we starve. Grocery store shelves are still not refilled from this ongoing pandemic that we find ourselves in. And so we don’t need to wait for say another part of an industry, which is going on right now in Maine where organic dairy farms have lost their holler and will no longer have a market for their milk in 2022. We need to stop waiting for that to happen. We need to take care of ourselves as my mother, wise as she was, always used to say, “Every tub stands on its own bottom.” That is what “Yes” means.

Alison – That’s fantastic. I really appreciate how this conversation for me has illuminated constitutional amendment around the right to food, to ultimately be about the scaffolding, putting the scaffolding in place so that we can continue to find our way forward in erecting policies and other pathways to really support the freedom of food choice. Thank you both so, so very much for being with us today, and I hope you know that you have many observers and supporters around the country that are behind you and really looking forward to a successful outcome on November 2nd. So if you’re inspired by what you’ve heard today, please check out our other podcasts and keep up to date with the Global Solidarity Alliance for Food, Health, and Social Justice by visiting http://www.rightsnotcharity.org. The Alliance is an international research, education and advocacy effort. You can find a transcript of today’s discussion at http://rightsnotcharity.org/podc


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