When I was going through my initial military training, our class Chief Petty Officer shared the story of how he had met his wife. He was on a recruiting tour and, once a particular female candidate decided not to enlist, he asked her: “Do you like food? Everyone’s gotta eat. Let’s go eat food.”
She said yes.
Setting aside the savviness of Chief’s suitoring, he hit on a key truth: everyone does have to eat. That simple fact ties in political stories from the past few weeks.
First, Mainers in 16 towns have tried to declare themselves sovereign when it comes to food. Licenses, storage regulations, and inspections purportedly do not apply. While some advocates recognize these efforts are primarily symbolic, the plain language of some of these ordinances claim they supersede federal and state law.
Those provisions simply do not work against the state. When our forebearers earned their independence from the British, they declared — like the local food ordinances — sovereignty belonged to the people. To exercise this sovereignty, the people transferred their inherent authority to the states by adopting constitutions. They took the King’s power and broke it up into three constituent parts, establishing governors, legislatures, and courts. And, in some cases, the first Mainers retained certain prerogatives, like our explicit right to keep and bear arms or our right to speak freely.
If towns do not want to be subject to state rules, they need either explicit constitutional authority or an exemption in law. That is true whether the topic is food, marijuana, or building codes. Or if people believe Augusta’s provisions are too onerous, they can elect individuals to change them.
But what of the federal laws? As we all learned in high school social studies, the federal government has limited, enumerated powers. Certainly the Constitution does not provide Washington with authority over people growing food for their own use, right?
Wrong. In a case often derided by conservatives — Wickard v. Filburn — the Supreme Court found that Congress had the authority to prohibit Mr. Filburn from growing wheat for his own use. Because using his own crops would reduce demand in the market, Congress could regulate him. This greatly increased the range of activities over which Washington could now assert itself throughout the country.
This is the reason the fight over the Supreme Court is so heated. The opinions of the justices echo for decades, often in ways unforeseen when they are first offered. Because of Wickard, Congress now claims the authority to regulate countless aspects of our daily lives. After 60 years, it was the legal basis for the federal government’s abrogation of state medical marijuana laws.
Yet, occasionally, the better angels of our elected officials arise. Rand Paul, Angus King, and even Chellie Pingree have recognized Washington’s requirements on meat inspection are far too onerous, giving a comparative advantage to industrial-scale food producers. One size does not fit all; Augusta is better equipped to deal with Maine farms than Washington, while Montpelier is better equipped to deal with Vermont farmers, and so on.
Augusta is attempting to deal with the impact of a regulation-related issue on a Maine food producer. While Matthew Secich, the renowned Unity butcher, may not be meeting the particular requirements of the 158-page Maine Food Code, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is working with him to find ways to ensure he can remain in business while complying with the law. And elected officials like state Rep. Craig Hickman and others are trying to reduce the statutory burdens on our local food producers.
So, rather than pass legally invalid “food sovereignty” town ordinances, let’s spend our time demanding lawmakers release local farms from unnecessarily burdensome requirements. This is not a partisan issue.
After all, everyone’s gotta eat.