White House Kitchen Garden

Then-First Lady Michelle Obama instructs young schoolchildren in the White House Garden. Author Baylen Linnekin took his American University food-policy students on a tour of the garden during Barack Obama’s presidency. / Courtesy the White House

Early in Biting the Hands That Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, Baylen Linnekin sets the tone for what’s to come: “Although I believe many food rules hamper sustainability, this is not a book about eliminating all rules that govern food. I support many food rules …”

Baylen Linnekin / Contributed

In this era of hyperbole — if not outright lying — and extreme partisanship, such a reasonable tone is comforting. In fact, the book’s closing chapter is titled “There Are Good Food Rules.”

Linnekin decided to focus on food law while attending law school. After graduating, he founded a nonprofit agency, Keep Food Legal, which promoted the idea “that people have the right to make their own food choices.” The Seattle resident also serves on the board of directors of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (farmtoconsumer.org).

He serves as an adjunct faculty member at American University, where he has taught courses on food policy.

His 200-page book contains many examples, nationwide, of what is harming our food system. They include unintended consequences caused by well-meaning laws; new laws that created worse problems than the ones they eliminated; laws that clearly were written to benefit big businesses at the expense of small ones; and laws drafted specifically to prevent consumers from seeing the living conditions, including cruelty and lack of sanitation, of the animals that will become their meat.

Author recommends solutions

Rather than merely pointing out examples of bad laws and regulations, however, Linnekin goes further. He offers specific recommendations for how to improve them.

One case the 2016 book discusses was still in court when it was published. That case has now been decided, with the city of Miami Shores the victor. In a recent story, I quoted Linnekin as saying this case was “one of many examples of awful municipal laws that prohibit home gardens.”

A Miami Shores couple, Hermine Ricketts and husband Tom Carroll, for about 15 years had grown vegetables in their front yard. But the city, in 2013, changed the ordinance to say that edible plants can be grown only in back yards and cited the couple.

Facing $50-a-day fines, the two quickly removed their vegetables, which included tomatoes, scallions, spinach, kale and cabbage. They sued Miami Shores but lost the case late in 2017, when Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeal upheld the city’s ban on front-yard vegetable gardens.

Dashed hopes

During the 2018 session of the Florida Legislature, hope appeared on the horizon. Senate Bill 1776, titled “Vegetable Gardens,” passed the Senate on March 1 by an almost unanimous 36-1. The bill would have prevented local governments from prohibiting front-yard gardens that grow edible plants.

Then, on March 10, the bill suddenly died in the Florida House of Representatives. The Florida Legislature’s website reported only that the bill had been “indefinitely postponed and withdrawn from consideration” by the House. The Legislature ended its session the next day.

In my earlier story, Linnekin’s opinion was, “The Florida House wrongly abdicated its responsibility to protect Florida gardeners, local food, and property rights. Their inaction on this bill is inexcusable.”

Another Florida debacle

Linnekin served as an expert witness in a lawsuit that Ocheesee Creamery filed in 2014, two years after an inspector for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services visited the dairy, in the Panhandle, and ordered its owners to stop selling skim milk. Ocheesee at the time was selling all-natural skim milk — no additives.

The inspector had found no food-safety problems. His decision was based solely on the fact that the creamery’s skim milk contained no vitamin A — a required additive under state law.

Mary Lou and Paul Wesselhoeft, Ocheesee’s owners, wanted to keep their skim milk all-natural. But they were losing thousands of dollars weekly. So, to satisfy what Linnekin’s book calls “Florida’s backward standard of identity for skim milk,” they even offered to label it “Pasteurized Skim Milk, No Vitamin A Added.”

The state’s irrational solution

Not good enough, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services replied. In turn, the state offered its solution, using language that was clearly meant to confuse — if not frighten — Ocheesee’s skim-milk customers. The Wesselhoefts could begin selling their skim milk, without vitamin A added, if they labeled it “Non-Grade ‘A’ Milk Product, Natural Milk Vitamins Removed.”

The Wesselhoefts refused to comply and filed their 2014 suit in federal court, arguing that the state’s labeling requirement violated their First Amendment rights. In March 2016, they lost. But as Linnekin points out in his assessment of the case, so did consumers.

“When … state governments can use Orwellian logic to redefine the meaning of traditional foods such as skim milk … then … food labels … serve to promote deception. Who benefits from this deception? Not sustainable producers, their customers or the buying public. Instead, it’s the large producers.”

“Good guys” win, taxpayers lose

But the creamery finally prevailed. In March 2017, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Ocheesee’s favor. In October of that year, the state paid $437,000 to cover the fees of attorneys who had, on behalf of Ocheesee Creamery, sued Adam Putnam’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Linnekin’s Biting the Hands That Feed Us is well-researched and documented. And despite its measured tone, the text is never boring — though it is frequently disturbing. For instance, in Chapter 3, “Wasting Your Money Wasting Food,” he writes, “The USDA’s National School Lunch Program is one of the best examples anywhere of a program that promotes food waste on a massive scale.” Then he provides page after page of very persuasive evidence.