On Tuesday, voters in Maine did something never before accomplished in this country — they voted to enshrine a Right to Food in their state constitution. This means those living in Maine now have a right most of us assume we already possess by virtue of being human, but actually have no legal claim to: The right to a world in which we can feed ourselves with dignity.
If there was ever any skepticism that an amendment like this is needed, the COVID-19 pandemic removed all doubt. The pandemic exposed and exacerbated the fault lines in our food system, laying bare the vulnerability of depending on food produced far away from where it is consumed. It also revealed the depth of hunger in this country and in Washington state.
According to the latest data from the University of Washington, 1 out of 7 low income and families of color are currently experiencing the severest level of food insecurity. The pandemic made clear that our current efforts to feed hungry people — efforts that rely primarily on federal nutrition programs and charitable food banks — do not fundamentally change a system where hungry people exist while there is sufficient food to feed everyone.
A Right to Food constitutional amendment isn’t all about increased charity or more food banks. It’s about protecting what we all should want — the ability to provide for ourselves, by growing or buying enough sustenance to maintain a dignified life.
How the Right to Food will specifically play out in Maine remains to be seen, as the first state to adopt this human right Maine is our shared national experiment. But Maine advocates across an astonishingly wide political spectrum have already indicated some of the issues they believe this amendment will impact.
The Maine Sportsman’s Alliance supported the amendment because they believe it will protect their rights against hunting bans. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association supported the amendment because they believe it will promote self-sufficiency. The Maine Green Independent Party supported the amendment because it aligns with their beliefs on decentralization. Maine Republican legislators deemed the proposal the “second amendment for food,” and noted that securing an individual right should be a goal in and of itself. Farmers spoke of using the amendment to ensure their ability to sell to consumers in an era where local food supplies are increasingly owned by large agricultural corporations and expansively onerous regulations are placed on small scale producers.
These varied motivations are some of the reasons why we formed the Washington state Right to Food Advisory Committee earlier this year. Led by Northwest Harvest and supported by national and regional advocates, our goal is to bring the Right to Food to Washington.
We are building a diverse grassroots movement, centering the expertise of those most impacted by our food system’s inequities. We undertook this work because we too understand the value of securing individual rights and the protection that growing our own food affords against both corporate agricultural interests and international pandemics.
We have watched as homeowners across the country, including in cases in Minnesota, Illinois and Florida, are told that they cannot grow vegetables in their yards. We have seen family farmers burdened by regulations better suited to large scale operatives and noted numerous instances where unused land that could be utilized for urban farming is either left barren or slogged down in bureaucracy.
A Right to Food constitutional amendment is the tool advocates in each of these situations need. And, like our allies in Maine and in the more than 100 other countries that have a Right to Food in their national constitutions, we see this right as one facet of an interrelated human rights agenda. While we believe this right will provide practical application in challenging laws that hinder a person’s right to grow their own food, among other things, we also need it to change the conversation about hunger from one about charity to one about justice. We believe that Washington can be the second state in the nation to do this.