Freshly harvested carrots. Credit: Courtesy of University of Maine Cooperative Extension

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Michael Haedicke is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maine and a faculty fellow at the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the University of Maine or the Mitchell Center. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Much public attention in recent months has focused on Question 1 and its implications for the disputed hydroelectric power corridor in western Maine. But this won’t be the only important question on November’s ballot.

This Election Day, voters will also decide whether to establish a “right to food” in the Maine Constitution. Question 3 asks whether voters favor a constitutional amendment to protect individuals’ legal right to “grow, raise, harvest, produce, and consume the food of their own choosing,” so long as they do not infringe on private property or public lands in the process.

Supporters of a yes vote on Question 3 argue that the choice is a straightforward one. As Senator Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, has put it, “Food is life. There’s nothing more intimate than eating. Do we have the right to obtain the foods we wish, or don’t we? It’s really that simple.”

Ensuring people’s access to safe, nutritious, and culturally important food is important. But it isn’t simple. And by framing the right to food primarily in terms of individuals’ freedom of choice, Question 3 sidesteps some important issues that are currently facing the state.

In the first place, Maine ranks sixth in the country in its rate of people facing very low food security. This term is used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to describe situations where people cannot afford to eat regular, nutritious meals.

Around 85,000 Mainers experienced very low food security in 2021, even despite the gradual economic recovery that has taken place over the past year.

These Mainers are not struggling because restrictive laws prevent them from growing or harvesting their own foods. Nor are they necessarily unemployed or indigent. In many cases, people are not able to adequately feed themselves and their families despite working at part-time or even full-time jobs. The barriers they face are economic ones, not legal ones.

These economic barriers are a potent threat to people’s right to food, but they have been overlooked by supporters of Question 3. As one supporter of the proposed amendment put it bluntly in testimony to the Maine Legislature: “The right to food does not obligate the government to provide free or subsidized food.”

A separate issue has to do with the ongoing legal dispute between the Penobscot Nation and the State of Maine over sovereignty rights on a portion of the Penobscot River. This part of the river has historically served as an important food source for Penobscot Nation members. The goal of protecting members’ ability to use the river for subsistence fishing is one of the things that led to the Penobscot Nation’s lawsuit.

From the perspective of the Penobscot Nation, the obstacles potentially interfering with their right to food are indeed legal ones. However, these are not obstacles that would be addressed by the constitutional amendment proposed in Question 3.

Because the language of Question 3 takes existing patterns of private and public property ownership for granted, it doesn’t consider how the historical loss of Indigenous territorial sovereignty may restrict access to culturally important food sources for the Penobscot Nation and other Indigenous peoples, either today or in the future. Again, this dimension of the right to food is off the table.

The idea of a right to food raised by Question 3 is important. In the lead-up to Election Day, a robust debate has occurred about how to balance individuals’ freedom to make their own food choices with the protection of public health and animal welfare. These are valuable conversations, and Question 3 has created a space for them to take place.

However, it is unfortunate that this ballot initiative frames the right to food only in terms of individual choices. Food is necessary for life, liberty, and other rights that we hold dear, but protecting the right to food for all people would require a more ambitious commitment than the one offered by this amendment.