After nearly a half-hour of debate, Whitefield voters passed a local food sovereignty ordinance at town meeting Saturday. Whitefield is the first Lincoln County town to pass food sovereignty, which the state first allowed in 2017.
The 64 voters at town meeting were located on a spectrum of steadfast opposition to enthusiastic support for the ordinance.
A food sovereignty ordinance allows any person to sell food or food products at the site of production to a willing consumer face to face, without licensing. Meat and poultry continue to fall under federal and state standards.
Robin Chase, owner of Chase Farm and Bakery, prepared a statement to read regarding the ordinance.
“I’m about buying local, but I want you to strongly think about food safety. It’s very important to you and your families,” she said.
Other comments were made on food safety, including by Whitefield Planning Board member Steve Sheehy. “I think it’s a well-meaning concept,” Sheehy said.
“I’d feel better about it if it was just about garden produce, but the minute you start processing food, and turning that garden produce into tomato sauce … there is a possibility of something going wrong,” he said.
Selectman Bill McKeen was a liaison with the Whitefield Planning Board while it was reviewing a template ordinance and giving it to the town’s attorney.
McKeen was asked if other towns have experienced food safety issues after enacting similar ordinances. He said he has not heard of any health issues in the nearly 50 towns that have enacted the ordinance across the state.
“Even though we may have the impression that we’re buying food in a regulated system that keeps us safe, that’s not at all true,” Robin Huntley said. “Look at what’s happened with lettuce and spinach.”
Huntley mentioned a recent E. coli scare connected to romaine lettuce, which sickened people in multiple states.
Another comment in opposition suggested that the ordinance would give Amish farmers an advantage.
When a resident asked if the selectmen wanted to pass the ordinance for the Amish, McKeen said, “I’m not promoting this ordinance. It’s been popular throughout the state. To me, there is no difference between what the Amish do and any other local farmer.”
Later in the discussion, a voter said the proposal of the ordinance and the influx of Amish residents was a coincidence.
Resident Christine LaPado-Breglia said licensed food retail businesses, such as Chase Farm and Bakery, have the option to sell their products off their site of production, while those without licenses cannot.
“I was a big part in bringing the Amish here … this is a hard spot for me to be in, because I think a lot of them, and I’m not aiming this at them. They are great people,” Chase said. “It’s just not them, it’s anyone. If the Amish weren’t here, I’d be standing here giving my same spiel — food safety, food safety.”
Another resident thought passing the ordinance would be redundant because people already sell food without licenses at events, such as the town meeting itself.
However, the loudest applause came after Huntley, a younger Whitefield resident who moved back to her hometown, spoke.
“My generation is really interested in moving to rural areas, starting small farms and businesses, being self-sufficient and doing homesteading,” she said. “They want this ordinance in order to come here.”
“We have a town of beautiful old farms. The Amish are buying them because they fit their needs. There are people like me out there that want it to fit their needs too,” Huntley said. “In order to attract people to come live here and so great things keep happening in Whitefield. … If we want our town to continue to exist — we need to take this seriously.”
After the meeting, McKeen said he was surprised by the amount of debate on food sovereignty.
“It hasn’t been controversial in most of the towns I’ve read about, so I was surprised,” McKeen said. “The one point I wanted to make and I let it go was that nearly 50 towns have passed it where there are no Amish communities, so therefore, there is no connection; it’s coincidental, like one person said.”