Food and Livelihoods Project

Sustainable Economies Law Center
Food and Livelihoods Project

Through the Food and Livelihoods Project, SELC focuses on core legal questions arising in the movement to make the U.S. food system sustainable.

8 Core Legal Questions for the Food System:

1. Home-Based and Informal Food Enterprises: What are the limits and possibilities of entrepreneurial food growing and food production in back-yards and residential kitchens? Increasingly, participants in the urban homesteading and grow-your-own movements are exploring creative ways in which home food production can provide a livelihood. The legal barriers to sharing, bartering, and selling such products are many, and include zoning laws, commercial regulation, health & safety laws, fire codes,  tort liability, and tax laws. Currently, SELC is working on a Cottage Food Law Campaign for California

2. Labor: How may volunteers, interns, work-traders, and agri-tourists take part in food production? Producing food is labor intensive, and doing so organically and sustainably is even more so.  Many small farmers and food producers have relied on help from volunteers, interns, “WWOOFers,”  and other types of unpaid or bartered assistance. Unfortunately, in many cases, receiving this type of assistance puts a farmer or food producer in violation of employment laws.

3. Community-Supported Food Enterprises: What are the legal limits and possibilities for implementing community-supported and community-owned enterprise models in the food system? The Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) model has already taken root and helped to grow many organic farms, and this model is spreading to other parts of the food industry, through community-supported kitchens, cafes, and fisheries.  Taking it another step further, many food enterprises are now exploring the potential to raise capital by obtaining micro-investments from customers and community members.  This community-owned approach not only benefits food enterprises; it also creates and circulates wealth within local communities.  Unfortunately, these enterprise models face securities laws obstacles, making it extremely difficult for small farms and food enterprises to raise capital.

4. Cooperatives: How can cooperatives enable more people to take part in food-related livelihoods? Few people understand the full realm of possibilities that cooperatives offer in restructuring the food industry – in the ways we farm (agricultural cooperatives), as well as ways we prepare, sell, and consume food (worker-owned and consumer-owned cooperatives).   Unfortunately, the law governing cooperatives is arcane and contains many barriers to scalability.

5. Nonprofit Organizations: What are the legal limits and possibilities for tax-exempt organizations to take part in food systems? Nonprofit organizations are playing a key role in the transition to more sustainable food economies. Yet, tax-exempt organizations are limited by federal tax law in the ways they participate in commercial activities such as the growing, producing, aggregating, marketing, distributing, and selling food.   Nonprofits would benefit greatly from guidance on ways they may take part in such activities.

6. Entrepreneurial Urban and Suburban Agriculture: What are the legal issues that arise in connection with urban commercial food production? Increasingly, however, communities are exploring the potential for urban commercial food growing on rooftops, walls, empty lots, and in private yards. Many unique legal issues arise when commercial agricultural production takes place in urban and suburban areas, including zoning, private land covenants, building codes, unique insurance questions, property tax, landlord-tenant laws, nuisance laws, and health and safety laws.

7. Land: What are the legal barriers to accessing land for food production and what are promising tools for obtaining, preserving, and sharing land? Limited understanding of land trusts, zoning laws, use of private yards for commercial food production, and legal frameworks for cooperative and shared ownership constitute a serious barrier for sustainable agriculture projects.

8. Food Currencies: What are the legal implications of food currencies? In the Bay Area, Vermont, North Carolina, and elsewhere, community groups have begun to explore the potential for food-based currencies.  Similar to the way the U.S. Dollar was backed by gold, a food currency would be backed by a commodity that all people need and use on a daily basis: food.  Farmers and food producers could issue the currency and back it with a promise of food products. People who provide labor, services, and goods to the  food producer could then be compensated with the currency, and could put the currency into circulation, exchanging it not only for food, but for any good or service. Unfortunately, food currencies have been held back primarily by legal barriers.

Sponsor the Food and Livelihoods Project

SELC is currently seeking businesses, foundations, and individuals to sponsor the Food and Livelihoods Project and provide a total of $75,000 in funding. This funding will support the work of a group of legal interns, attorneys, and advisors from June 2011 to August 2012. The Project will research the legal questions outline below and develop a series of free how-to guides.