Eating as an Agricultural Act: Food Freedom Laws

March 4, 2020 by Bryce Brenda

Joseph Nelson, Staff Contributor

Food Freedom Laws can help us positively reorder our relationships with our food, our neighbors, and the Earth we share.

While pursuing ambitious policy goals to protect the environment, we should remember a basic human action that ought to intimately connect us to one another and to our planet: eating food. Wendell Berry writes: “Eaters … must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”[1] Berry outlines several steps that would move us towards this understanding, including learning the origins of the food we eat, buying the food that is produced closest to our homes, and dealing directly with local food producers.[2]

A brief survey of food related statistics shows us that we are, as a society, living far from the ideal championed by Berry. In 1870, almost 50 percent of employed Americans worked in agriculture.[3] As of September 2019, that number stands at a paltry 1.4 percent.[4] Furthermore, a 2003 study conducted by Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems found that conventionally-grown food was transported an average of 1,494 miles before it reached its consumer.[5] Thus, many Americans likely do not know a single farmer or agricultural worker, much less those who grew the food that they are actually eating.

These numbers indicate that a relationship between Americans and the agricultural process that culminates in the food we eat is, in general, nonexistent. A forty percent obesity rate among American adults suggests that our relationship with food once it finally gets to our plates isn’t great either.[6] Neither does the fact that thirty to forty percent of the U.S. food supply ends up as food waste.[7]

How can our society reorder our relationship with agriculture and food? One way to do so is to allow local farmers the freedom to sell their goods to their communities. But restrictive government regulations often prohibit this.

Take for example Mark and Kena Guttridge, a Colorado couple profiled in 2017 by Rachel Quednau in Strong Towns. Mark and Kena own a small farm that they operate using sustainable and regenerative procedures. They would like to be able to sell their excess tomatoes in the form of homemade salsa. But, to do so, they would be required to install a commercial grade kitchen in order to be up to code.[8]

While Colorado is one of many states that has enacted a cottage food law that exempts certain small-scale home food operations from various regulations and licensing requirements, the law applies to a small list of specified foods, and excludes salsa and canned vegetables.[9] This is typical of state cottage food laws, which provide narrow exemptions from regulations, while still requiring various licenses and labelling on products. A recent study by the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School concluded these laws “still restrict cottage food operations in ways that are unnecessary for protecting public health and safety.”[10]

These regulations often doom ideas like Mark’s and Kena’s. So, locals who might buy salsa produced from seed to jar by Mark and Kena will instead go to a supermarket to buy salsa that was driven in from a processing plant far away and made with ingredients grown in other distant locations.

Obviously, safe food is a good thing, and these regulations are aimed at protecting consumers. But it is tragic if our society is confident in the safety of food produced a thousand miles away according to a code of governmental regulations but doesn’t trust food made by our own neighbors. As Mark Guttridge poignantly put it: “This is the stuff we bring into our house and feed our kids. We’re eating it ourselves and we know our customers, so it should be more safe.”[11]

Yet, according to the regulations that govern most of our states, it’s not. This drives a wedge between us, our communities, and the corner of the Earth we share.

Some states have taken steps to reduce the restrictions on farmers and food producers like Mark and Karen. The prime example is Wyoming, which passed its Food Freedom Act in 2015. This law exempted producers of any food or drink product, excluding some food products, “from all licensing, permitting, certification, packaging or labeling regulations when the food was sold directly to an informed end consumer at a farmers market or through sales out of the producer’s ranch, farm, or home.”[12] The states of North Dakota and Utah have since followed Wyoming’s lead and enacted similar laws in 2017 and 2018, respectively.[13]

As the Harvard Center for Food Policy noted about such laws, “[a]llowing for a broader list of foods would increase access to local products and provide producers with more options to make their operations viable businesses.”[14] Experience has proven this true. Since the enactment of these Food Freedom laws, “hundreds of new local businesses have sprouted across three states”, and they’ve done so “without a single outbreak of a foodborne illness.”[15] There are now approximately fifty farmers’ markets throughout Wyoming, an increase of seventy percent from the pre-Food Freedom Act figure.[16]

Broad freedom for local growers to sell to their own communities represents an important step towards a culture where eating is understood as “an agricultural act” that connects us to one another and to our common home. [17]  Food Freedom laws represent an important step towards positively reordering our relationships with our food, our neighbors, and our planet. States should consider following the lead of Wyoming, North Dakota, and Utah in enacting these laws.

 

[1]Wendell Berry, The Pleasure of Eating (1990), reprinted in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry 321, 324 (Norman Wizbra ed., 2002).

 

[2]Id. at 325.

 

[3]Patricia A. Daly, Agricultural employmenthas the decline ended?, MONTHLY LABOR REV., Nov. 1981, at 12, http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/1981/11/art2full.pdf.

 

[4]Employment by Major Industry Sector, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,

https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/employment-by-major-industry-sector.htm (last visited Feb. 20, 2020).

 

[5]Becky Henne, How far did your food travel to get to you?, Mich. State Univ. Extension (Sep. 20, 2012), https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/how_far_did_your_food_travel_to_get_to_you.

 

[6]U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2015–2016 (Oct. 2017), https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db288.pdf.

 

[7]Food Waste FAQs, U.S. Dep’t of Agric., https://www.usda.gov/foodwaste/faqs (last visited Feb. 20, 2020).

[8]Rachel Quednau, Modern Small-Scale Farming: Could it Sustain Us?, Strong Towns (Aug. 9, 2017), https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/8/8/modern-small-scale-farming-can-it-sustain-us-can-we-sustain-it.

 

[9]Cottage Foods Act: Frequently Asked Questions , Colo. Farm to Market, http://cofarmtomarket.com/value-added-products/cottage-foods/cottage-foods-faq/ (last visited Feb. 20, 2020).

 

[10]Christina Rice, Emily Broad Leib, Ona Balkus, Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic , Cottage Food Laws in the United States 21 (Aug. 2018), https://www.chlpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/FLPC_Cottage-Foods-Report_August-2018.pdf.

 

[11]Quednau, supra note 8.

 

[12]Rice, et. Al., supra note 10, at 7.

 

[13]Nick Sibilla, Hundreds Of Homemade Food Businesses Flourish Under State Food Freedom Laws, Forbes (Jan. 22, 2019), https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicksibilla/2019/01/22/hundreds-of-homemade-food-businesses-flourish-under-state-food-freedom-laws/#10f92ac62226.

 

[14]Rice, et. Al., supra note 10, at 19.

[15]Sibilla, supra note 13.

 

[16]Id.

 

[17]Berry, supra note 1, at 325.