Should Food Sharing Be Illegal?
In 2014, 90-year-old World War II veteran Arnold Abbott was arrested in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for feeding the homeless. The city had recently passed a controversial ordinance that restricts where charitable groups can feed the homeless on public property.
The ordinance was described as a way to control the area’s growing homeless population. Abbott, however, had no plans of stopping his altruistic acts. After being arrested on November 2, 2014 — along with two pastors — police cited him again on November 6, 2014.
Mayor Jack Seiler defended the arrest and told Abbott to secure an indoor location instead. In response, Abbott said no indoor venues to feed the homeless were available, and he intended to continue with his mission outside until the mayor found him a suitable location indoors.1
Meanwhile, by last year at least five lawsuits had been filed against Fort Lauderdale, alleging that the law is unconstitutional.2 The case of Abbott versus Fort Lauderdale may seem like an extreme example, but it is, unfortunately, not unique.
More Than 70 US Cities Have Attempted To Ban Food Sharing
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, citywide restrictions on food sharing are growing in the U.S. More than 70 cities have passed or attempted to pass laws that make feeding the homeless a criminal offense.3
The legislation works in a number of ways. For instance, some cities require permits be obtained (for a fee) before food may be distributed on public property.
Other legislation restricts food sharing on the grounds of food safety, requiring organizations sharing food to comply with overly strict food-safety regulations, such as only preparing food in approved locations or serving only pre-packaged meals. Mother Jones reported in 2014:
“When the issue of food safety was raised during a court hearing on Myrtle Beach, South Carolina’s food-sharing law, the legal director of the state’s ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] chapter pointed out that similar restrictions weren’t being levied against family reunions in parks, for instance, and that it had never received a single report of homeless people getting sick from the food.
A Utah state representative said the same thing about Salt Lake City’s food-sharing law.”
Food-Sharing Bans Attempt To Move The Problem Of Homelessness Elsewhere
In some cases, community members may force the food-sharing organization to relocate or stop operating in order to make the location “less attractive” for homeless people. According to a National Coalition for the Homeless report:4
“The final, and most difficult to measure, method to restrict food-sharing with people experiencing homelessness is through community actions driven by the principle of ‘Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY).’
In most cases, business- and home-owners [sic] who do not want people experiencing homelessness to be attracted to their communities, place tremendous pressure, and sometimes even harass, the organization responsible for the food-sharing program to cease or relocate their programs.”
The National Coalition for the Homeless believes, however, that simply stopping food sharing will not make homeless people disappear — nor will sharing food encourage people to be homeless.
Instead, they cite lack of affordable housing and job opportunities, mental health problems, addiction and physical disabilities as top reasons that perpetuate homelessness.
Is It Illegal To Buy A Meal From Your Neighbor?
The issue of food sharing stretches far beyond feeding the homeless. What if, for instance, you were ill, too busy or simply did not want to cook meals for yourself and your family?
And what if a neighbor loved cooking and wanted to cook meals for you regularly, which you would purchase for an agreed-upon fee and pick up at their doorstep at an agreed-upon time?
Such is the premise behind California food-startup company Josephine, which “connects you to friends and neighbors making home cooked meals.”
Thousands of people have joined and raved about not only the meals they’ve picked up but also the sense of community — some even called it family — that the simple act of picking up home-cooked meals has brought them. There are others, too. Fast Company reported:5
“Feastly and EatWith facilitate pop-up dinners in people’s homes. Mytable, MealSurfers and Umi Kitchen deliver meals from home chefs’ kitchens.
Homemade, a similar concept, acts like a Shopify for food, providing software to enable anyone to sell their empanadas or jerk chicken dish from their apartment. Even Etsy has a fairly extensive homemade food inventory.”
You may be wondering if sharing food in this way is legal. In many areas, technically it’s not.
In order to sell food, many states require that it be prepared in a “commercial kitchen,” which must contain nonabsorbent (i.e., stainless steel) countertops, two sinks (one for washing and preparing food and one, with three compartments, for washing dishes), and other requirements that would be impractical and undesirable in a typical home kitchen.
Many start-up companies begin their operations and forge ahead anyway. In Josephine’s case, the company was eventually presented with a wave of cease-and-desist letters from various government officials — but not before it sponsored a bill that would have removed the commercial kitchen requirement from the California Retail Code, essentially making it legal to sell food cooked at home.
The bill was immediately opposed and pulled, however, and it remains to be seen whether Josephine will ultimately survive. Still, the company, and other start-ups like it, is clearly fulfilling a void for home-cooked meals in many people’s lives.
Why Cottage Food Laws Don’t Cut It
You may be wondering how people can “get away” with selling homemade goods at farmer’s markets and craft fairs. This is because most states have “cottage food” laws that allow certain home-cooked foods to be sold publicly on a limited basis.
The foods permitted to be sold are typically limited to “non-potentially hazardous” items, such as baked goods, dried fruits, jams, jellies and popcorn. There is some variance by state, such as in Wyoming, where most home-cooked food can be sold, and Wisconsin, where not even baked goods can be sold.6
In addition, the operations are typically limited by how much they can earn each year. In Illinois, for instance, the Cottage Food Law limits sales from homemade products to $36,000 per year or less.7
The person selling the product must also be registered with the state and must obtain an Illinois Food Service Sanitation Manager Certificate — so there are still plenty of regulatory hurdles to cross, even when selling your homemade goods is “legal.”
Police Raids To Confiscate Raw Milk Continue
The war against raw milk in the U.S. is an assault to food freedom and should strike a nerve with anyone who believes it is his or her own right (and not the government’s) to choose what to eat and drink.
In recent months in Texas, for instance, at least two police raids have occurred to break up raw milk sales. In one case, about 50 people picking up raw milk from a farmer in a church parking lot in Katy, Texas, were stopped by police.8
In another instance, inspectors from the Austin Health Department and the Texas Department of State Health Services stopped people in the private driveway of an Austin, Texas home. The people were picking up raw milk they had already purchased, and the health officials said they could not have it.
These raids occurred despite the operations being LEGAL; in Texas, people can purchase raw milk from farms or have someone pick it up for them. The police and health department raids occurred, seemingly, because the customers hired a courier to deliver the legally purchased milk to them.9
Even Representative Dan Flynn (R-Van), Chairman House Pensions, sent a letter to the Attorney General’s Office defending the raw-milk consumers and calling the health officials’ actions “harassment of the farmer, the couriers and the customers.”
“Not one illness has been reported, no pathogens have been found in this farmers [sic] milk, and there is absolutely no health basis for this action,” he wrote.10
Meanwhile, Big Dairy, including the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), Dairy Farmers of America, and Land O’Lakes, has been accused of combining to form Cooperatives Working Together (CWT) and engaging in a price-fixing plot to inflate milk prices. CWT reportedly was involved in slaughtering half a million young cows in order to reduce milk supply and inflate prices, which resulted in more than $9.5 billion in profits.11
In contrast, many small raw milk farmers are struggling to survive. In Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board sets price points and, as a result, small farmers may have to sell their milk at a loss. Ray Kuzma, a Pennsylvania farmer who sells raw milk produced by his 200 Holstein cattle, receives $15 for 100 pounds of raw milk — an $8 loss compared to the cost of milk production. At that price, he’s losing at least $10,000 a month.12
The Federal Milk Marketing Improvement Act of 2011, sponsored by Progressive Agriculture Cooperative, is an old senate bill that could help struggling farmers like Kuzma if it’s reintroduced, as it would set a national average to price milk based on the farmer’s cost.13
The Right To Food
The right to food is included in the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food.”14 Yet, in the developed world this right to food increasingly means the right to food that comes from industrial food conglomerates as opposed to food from the origin of your choosing.
Government officials have crossed the line in telling people what types of food they can and can’t eat — from attempting to shut down home cooks interested in selling their meals to making the sale of raw milk illegal across state lines and arresting those attempting to share food with the homeless.
The system is set up to protect industrialized, centralized food production and distribution, while efforts to decentralize food are kept strictly under wraps. Even small farmers attempting to offer grass-fed beef are met with hurdles unbeknownst to many Americans.
PRIME Act Would Help Support Food Freedom
All U.S. farmers must use USDA-approved slaughterhouses, and laws place special restrictions on grass-fed slaughtering. If a grass-fed rancher doesn’t have access to a slaughterhouse, he cannot stay in business.
This shrewd strategy effectively maintains the status quo of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), because grass-fed ranchers are often forced to ship their cattle hundreds of miles for “processing” — a move that’s both costly and stressful. Large slaughterhouses can also refuse smaller jobs, as they — just like CAFOs — operate on economy of scale.
Basically, there may be plenty of demand for grass-fed beef, and plenty of supply, but USDA rules and regulations prevent the American-bred supply from ever reaching the customer. Across the U.S., smaller slaughterhouses catering to grass-fed ranchers have been closing up shop, pushed out by larger processors, adding to the shortage of processing facilities to choose from.
So while every human has the right to food, in the U.S. rules and regulations may make it difficult, impossible or even illegal to purchase and consume the food of your choosing. Fortunately, there is some small farm-friendly legislation in the works, including the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act (S. 2651), introduced by Senators Angus King (I-ME) and Rand Paul (R-KY) earlier this year.
Representatives Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced an identical bill, H.R. 3187, in the House of Representatives last summer. If passed, the PRIME Act would allow states to permit sale of meat processed locally, thereby making it easier for small farms and ranches to serve their consumers. I encourage you to call your senators and urge them to support the PRIME Act.
Measures such as this support a decentralized, locally based food system, which is key for securing your right to food freedom, including fresh, naturally raised food. At an individual level, you can support your local food producers by frequenting farmer’s markets, local farms and even testing out food-sharing opportunities.
Regarding the PRIME Act, you can find your senators’ contact information by clicking here or by calling the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121.
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Sources and References
Fast Company July 7, 2016
Mother Jones November 13, 2014
NPR October 22, 2014
Reason August 1, 2015
Houston Chronicle July 15, 2016
1 Huffington Post November 12, 2014
2 Broward Palm Beach New Times July 8, 2015
3, 4 National Coalition for the Homeless October 1, 2014
5, 6 Fast Company July 7, 2016
7 Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Illinois Cottage Food Law
8, 9 HealthFreedoms.org
10 KSST Radio July 8, 2016
11 COK.net, The Dairy Industry’s $9.5 Billion Price-Fixing Scheme
12, 13 PA Homepage July 14, 2016
14 WorldHunger.org Special Report