Maine Law Colloquium Embraces Local Food

Suits meet boots
By LAURA MCCANDLISH  |  February 27, 2013

PROTECTING GARDENS Lewiston native Jaime Bouvier delivers a talk arguing that gardening is protected by the First Amendment; UMaine Law professor Sarah Schindler is among those listening.

Do front-yard gardens and backyard chicken coops, as leading symbols of our thriving food movement, deserve First Amendment protection, much as black armbands did during the Vietnam War? Does a focus on "food miles" distract from the urgent need to reduce the greenhouse gases agriculture emits as we strive to feed a world population of 9 billion by 2050? Should the government mandate vegetable consumption — just as New York City and others have enacted bans on Big Gulps and trans fats?

These were among the pressing questions raised at the University of Maine Law Review's annual symposium, which this year addressed "Local Food/Global Food: Do We Have What It Takes to Reinvent the US Food System." About 100 attendees, mostly law students and lawyers in suits, plus some farm folks in jeans, convened in the Portland High School auditorium last Saturday for three lively panels on flaws and proposed fixes in federal food regulations, food sovereignty versus public health at the local level, and how governments should cope with emerging trends such as climate change, farmland succession, and the need to build a stronger New England food system.

"It's not only a fun topic to cover, but it's very relevant, and it's an emerging area of law," said organizer Agnieszka Pinette, the editor-in-chief of the Maine Law Review, whose spring volume features the papers legal scholars gave at the colloquium. "And it's not really taught in the typical law school curriculum. Some schools are starting to pick up the thread, but at this point, it's a fairly new topic."

Don't confuse "food law" with "agricultural law," taught by law schools in the Midwest for decades, to Cargill and Monsanto's benefit. This is public interest, environmental law for those who grow their own food and know where it comes from. This locavore ethos extended to lunch at the daylong event, a surprisingly meager (for $10) Rosemont Market spread of a baguette end of free-range chicken salad, slaw or roasted potatoes, a cookie, and an apple. Refreshments were rounded out with java from Coffee By Design and treats from East End Cupcakes. No one starved.

Sarah Schindler, a vegan, urban gardener and popular young professor at the University of Maine School of Law, embodies this new direction. She recently published a paper, "Of Backyard Chickens and Front Yard Gardens: The Conflict Between Local Governments and Locavores," and moderated a panel that included this policy debate. Jaime Bouvier, who grew up in Lewiston and now lives in Cleveland, suggested the First Amendment protects symbolic gardens. The White House Garden, she noted, is the national symbol of how far this movement has come, thanks, of course, to the campaign of Mainer Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardens International. Panelists suggested zoning could improve urban food "swamps" and that obesity prevention policies at the local level, similar to smoke-free workplace regulations, could do more than litigation to influence national policy.

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