[/caption]â€œI can buy my daughter a Twinkie. But I canâ€™t buy her a fresh, homemade pickle at a farmers’ market.â€ The words of Texas Township (Michigan) Farmers Market Manager, Donna McClurken expressed the feeling of many in the hearing room on May 5 as she testified before the Michigan House Agriculture Committee about a bill called â€œThe Cottage Food Law.â€
Every revolution encounters crossroads as it pushes forward â€“ places where fundamental decisions about direction are made. In Michigan, House Bills 5280 and 5837 â€“ amendments to the Michigan 2000 Food Law to allow small scale home preparation and processing of food for direct sale â€“ constitutes such a crossroads for the Local Food Revolution.
These identical bills (one Republican, one Democratic) establish â€œcottage food operationsâ€ that produce â€œbaked goods, jams, jellies, candy, snack food, cereal, granola, dry mixes, vinegar and dried herbsâ€ as â€œexempt from the licensing and inspection provisionsâ€ (of the 2000 Food Law), as long as the food is (1) only sold at farmers markets, homes, farm markets or roadside stands, county fairs, town celebrations, festivals and events and (2) annual gross sales do not exceed $15,000.
Bills similar to HB 5280/5837 had been introduced in two previous legislative sessions. The May 5 hearing before the Michigan House Agriculture and Tourism Committee marked the first time this proposal had received a formal hearing.
The bills were quietly opposed by the Farm Bureau and the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) on the grounds that â€œcottage foodâ€ products posed unfair competition to food producers who, in the words of the Farm Bureau representative at the hearing, â€œfollow the rules.â€
The MDA opposed the bill because it posed an â€œunwarranted hazardâ€ in a time of increasing food contamination incidents around the nation.
These arguments have little merit. The idea that a grandmother making jam in her kitchen is somehow a threat to Welchâ€™s is nonsense. The food safety crises of the last couple of years come almost exclusively from large-scale industrial food production shipped over long distances. There is virtually no evidence that local food production sold directly to consumers has caused any health problems. Michigan citizens are smart enough to follow common-sense food safety precautions.
In spite of this and a flood of constituent communications to legislators in favor of the â€œCottage Food Billâ€, its future passage was anything but certain.
The Cottage Food Bill of Michigan â€“ like similar measures adopted by 12 other states â€“ marks a crossroads in the local food revolution here. If it passed, the command-and-control industrial food system fueled by government subsidies and run by government inspectors to benefit large corporate food interests would be excluded from the most vibrant and diverse grassroots portion of the local food revolution.
The Cottage Food Bill represents the development of true food democracy â€“ a local food system based on face-to-face transactions, diversity of products produced locally, and core values embedded in a hand-shake compact between producers and consumers. The raw milk movement represents another example of this kind of food democracy.
The Cottage Food Bill represented something more. For dozens, hundreds of Michigan families facing hardship in increasingly desperate financial times the bill offered them a way to supplement their income, producing food for their neighbors.
Amanda Edmonds of Ypsilantiâ€™s Growing Hope organization told the committee the story of an unemployed woman who began such a business and grew it into a now inspected business that employed six people. The Cottage Food Bill would actually work to promote small-scale entrepreneurship, not just talk about it like a distant island we all want to visit someday.
The benefits of this kind of local food production go far beyond financial survival. Cottage food production would enable stronger community ties â€“ building connections and resilience in a time when both are needed desperately in Michigan.
Who could not be in favor of this bill?
Aside from the Farm Bureau (whose farmer members would be among the principle beneficiaries of the new law) and the MDA who opposed the new law, two Michigan groups that have local food systems in their mission took no position on the Cottage Food Bill at the hearing.
MIFFS â€“ short for Michigan Integrated Food & Farming Systems â€“ had a representative present but took no position either in favor or opposition to the bill.
The other group â€“ the CS Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems â€“ did not have an identified representative present. The CS Mott Group had recently hosted the development of a statewide Good Food Charter that included provisions the appeared to support Cottage Food production. Yet, it too shied away from open support.
Standing at this crossroads, both groups were indecisive about which road to take. Their hesitation is understandable. The immensely powerful industrial food corporations are attacking â€œsustainable agriculture and food systemsâ€ in legislative bodies in Washington and in state capitols across the country. MIFFS and the CS Mott Group have a lot of funding and access at stake.
Yes, their hesitation is understandable, but not acceptable.
For, I believe, we are indeed at a crossroads. If we let the industrial food corporations and their Farm Bureau allies dictate the design of our future food systems, we are not only facing a potential food security catastrophe, we undermine the food democracy necessary to create a viable response.
At some point, our food security depends on taking a stand for the values that will sustain us: democracy, transparency, accountability, justice, and a commitment to living diversity.
Playing inside games on the margin, may gain you a better stateroom on the Titantic. But the ship is still going down.
We must trust each other.
We must empower each other to grow and prepare food.
We must take a stand for food democracy.
I urge you to support Michigan House Bills 5280 and 5837.
Contact the Michigan House of Representatives Committee of Agriculture and Tourism â€“ Committee Clerk David Mead at 517-373-2013 or email Michigan Food and Farming Systems-MIFFS at 517-353-7961 or email email@example.com
Michael Hamm of CS Mott Group at 517-432-1611 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Christopher Bedford is with the Center for Economic Security in Montague, Michigan, a project of the Community Foundation of Muskegon County. You can contact him at 231-893-3937 or email at email@example.com
For an analysis of the content of both bills, click here