The Human Right to Food in Maine and Beyond

Denisse Cordova Montes

The Human Right to Food in Maine and Beyond

Smart Take by R. Denisse Córdova Montes
Smart Take by R. Denisse Córdova Montes

December 10, 2023, marked the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This foundational instrument on human rights prominently recognized economic, social, and cultural rights as indispensable to ensure a life of dignity. However, there have been long-standing debates about the justiciability of Economic, Social, and Cultural rights. While the debate has been settled in many countries worldwide as courts have shown that adjudication of ESC rights is well within their powers, the debate continues in the United States.

Not only are ESC rights missing from the U.S. Constitution, but the U.S. is also one of a handful of countries that still need to ratify the International Covenant on ESC Rights. Hunger and food insecurity in the U.S. stem partly from the country’s refusal to guarantee its citizens a universal right to adequate food, a right enshrined in ICESCR.

However, ESC rights are being implemented in the U.S. in many ways at the subnational level. The right to food, more specifically, has started to see recent support in the U.S., with several states, counties, and cities adopting laws and policies recognizing the dimensions of the right to food. On November 2, 2021, Maine voters overwhelmingly supported a statewide referendum approving an amendment to enshrine the right to food in the Maine Constitution. Maine is the first state in the nation to enshrine the right to food in its constitution. It was a stunning victory, not just for Maine, but for the right to food movement in the U.S. overall.

The amendment adds the following to Maine’s constitution: “All individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to food, including the right to save and exchange seeds and the right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being, as long as an individual does not commit trespassing, theft, poaching or other abuses of private property rights, public lands, or natural resources in the harvesting, production, or acquisition of food.”

With the amendment, the U.S. joins other nations seeking to address gaps in ESC rights via national and subnational constitutions. Today, other states, such as West Virginia and Washington, are actively looking to follow in Maine’s footsteps and amend their constitutions. Experiences in Maine serve as a reference point and an educational tool for states on successful advocacy and lessons learned throughout the process, highlighting the international right to food standards and how these standards were molded into Maine’s right to food vision. Furthermore, in part prompted by the need for legal support for Maine’s legislative efforts, a group of people with lived experiences of hunger, legislators, food justice advocates, human rights scholars, practitioners, and students from around the country have come together to mobilize around the right to food in the U.S.

Since 2019, the Miami Law’s Human Rights Clinic has supported the growing movement’s strategic engagement with international human rights mechanisms to build awareness and accountability around hunger in the U.S. Use of the international human rights framework has helped to exert political pressure, contributed to social mobilization, and sought to develop further international standards and recommendations that could then be implemented domestically. As part of this advocacy, people with lived experiences of hunger, advocates, and scholars engaged in self-education and training, supporting organizing efforts around a human rights framework. They convened strategy meetings with other movements also focused on ESC rights and engaged with several United Nations human rights mechanisms, including the U.N. Human Rights Committee, Universal Periodic Review by the U.N. Human Rights Council, and the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

U.N. advocacy has been highly successful. Recently, advocacy with the CERD Committee resulted in the adoption of the first set of U.N. recommendations to the U.S. focused on its obligation to realize the right to food of Americans. More specifically, in August 2022, the U.N. CERD Committee issued the following powerful concluding observations to the U.S.:

“The Committee recommends that the State party take all necessary measures to guarantee the right to adequate food, to strengthen its efforts to combat hunger and food insecurity, which disproportionately affects racial and ethnic minorities, and especially women and children, including by strengthening the institutional framework and adopting a comprehensive and rights-based national plan to end hunger. The Committee encourages the State party to take effective measures against hunger, in consultation with all relevant stakeholders, including members of the communities most affected by food insecurity.”

While everyone eagerly awaits how Maine’s right to food constitutional amendment is interpreted and applied via litigation and legislation, Maine’s efforts should be understood in the context of a broader political mobilization effort around food as a human right in the U.S.

Most recently, in April 2023, the clinic hosted a symposium on Food, Housing, and Racial Justice in the U.S., which sought to provide a space for deep reflection and strategizing by foregrounding lived experiences and strategies of survival and resistance of communities of color around food insecurity; food system governance; access to housing, land, and natural resources; and the environment. The symposium began to unpack the meaning of the human right to food in the U.S., given our context of colonization, slavery, and corporate control of the food system.

At the symposium, the current U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, powerfully summarized the discussions by saying: “At its simplest form, the right to food is people’s ability to access good food through their relationship with the land, or through fair and stable markets,” he said. “To be free from hunger is to be free from exploitation and to be free from oppression.”  

Denisse Córdova Montes is acting associate director of the Human Rights Clinic at Miami Law. From 2012 to 2018, Córdova Montes was based in Germany, where she coordinated the Gender and Women’s Rights Program at FIAN International, where she oversaw human rights fact-finding and advocacy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America around rural, peasant, and Indigenous women’s rights.

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