by Trisha MandesRead the Dirt
May 8th, 2013

Editor’s Note: Trisha Mandes speaks to the deficiencies of U.S. food activism and proposes an adaptive way forward. Trisha has worked with community-based food projects in Oregon and Pennsylvania and is now pursuing a Masters Degree in Public Health Nutrition and Sustainable Development at the University of Eastern Finland.

“We need to make fundamental changes to the structure of law that is working against us, not work around it.” –Trish Mandes

The International Peasant’s Movement—La Via Campesina, defines food sovereignty as “the human right of all people to healthy, culturally appropriate, sustainably grown food, and the right of communities to determine their own food systems” (1).

Are our current food movements working to not only empower local control of food, but to take down the forces that are preventing it? Food sovereignty strives to dismantle the neoliberal political powers that stop communities from deciding what food is imported or grown in their localities. Unfortunately, U.S. food justice and food security strategies are stuck battling these neoliberal harms from within corporate constraints that fail to fundamentally change the barriers faced by localities.

Despite the well-intentioned efforts of farmer’s markets and community gardens, this article aims to demonstrate how food security and food activism movements, especially through the regulatory system, are not moving towards food sovereignty.


Neoliberalism is a political philosophy that advocates open markets and economic liberalization. It places control of the global food system into the hands of multilateral organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO), in conjunction with mega-corporations and wealthy nation-states. Such a monopoly relies on chemical inputs, environmental degradation and inequalities in food access and production (2).

Neoliberalism values deregulation of markets, privatization and corporatization of social services once held by governments, and the free flow of agricultural commodities. Such “liberalism” not only disempowers local decision-making authority, a tenant of food sovereignty, it also removes international protectants that once safeguarded farmers.

Neoliberalism relies on the superiority of the market to solve complex problems, neglecting social, environmental and cultural concerns (3).  One of its rationalizations is the belief that individuals are responsible for their personal well-being, thus relieving social pressures from the state.

These neoliberal forces undermine local decision-making, paralyzing a community’s ability to achieve food sovereignty. They prevent communities from deciding how food is grown, what is grown, where it goes, what comes in and how much it costs. Despite all this, as an individual, you are encouraged to ´vote with your dollar` to change the system and take the blame when the food around you makes you fat and sick.

U.S. Food Movements

Farmer’s markets and community gardens are popping up throughout the country; farm to school programs are moving local produce into schools; and urban farms are emerging in cities throughout the country. Yet, most of these trends do not actively take on global, corporate agribusiness as food sovereignty does. Farmer’s markets rely on market mechanisms to fix food disparities which generally neglect a neighborhood’s poorest residents whose dollars are stretched further at corporate grocery stores.

Community garden groups feed and teach citizens how to grow food. Although well intentioned, this may actually justify the dismantling of state food programs. Community gardens rarely address the underlying cause of food in-access—poverty and neoliberal food system control.

Nutrition education programs for food banks, schools and under-served populations frequently rely on the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines, whose council has represented over 27 different food corporations and agribusinesses from 1995 to 2010 (4). The Dietary Guidelines serve the interests of industry first, not the health of the public.

Defying Corporations through the Regulatory System

Many communities have attempted to defy corporate food control through their state legislatures, striving to stop the influx of factory farming, or privatized water bottling operations in their localities. But in the vast majority of cases, these attempts fail. Why? Because citizens are funneled through state regulatory agencies that control, not stop, these corporate acts.

This regulatory system funnels all of the community’s original economic, environmental and social concerns about a factory farm into the governmental and corporate system of regulatory “activism.” Opponents of a factory farm find themselves battling permit applications and regulatory management acts. The power of communities working within state regulatory structures is limited by the following:

1.Corporations possess first, fourth, fifth and fourteenth amendment “rights.” They don’t have to label products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), because of their fourth amendment rights to privacy. Even corporate big box stores are protected by the fourteenth amendment’s equal protection clause, meaning a community cannot outlaw them. These are just two examples.

2.The commerce clause deems it illegal for states, and their localities, to interfere with the selling and transport of commerce related activities between states, including food products. This allows corporations to dump their garbage and pollution, as it is defined as commerce, into other states. Interestingly enough, environmental laws like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, as well as desegregation laws also gain their constitutional protections from the commerce clause (5).

3.State pre-emption mandates that “higher” levels of government can prohibit communities from making decisions concerning their health, safety and welfare that conflict with a state policy.

4.Dillon’s Rule requires legislative permission for a locality to enact any local laws.

These four hammers disable local communities from taking control of their food system, while granting corporations legal authoritative powers. Fortunately, communities throughout the U.S. are asserting their inherent right to community self-government to fundamentally change these smothering doctrines and ignite food sovereignty within the United States.

Community Rights Activism

Communities across the country have pointed to their state constitutions to assert their rights and step outside this disempowering structure of law. The Pennsylvania State Constitution, for example, declares “All power is inherent in the people, and…they have at all times an inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper” (6).

Communities are asserting this right and creating legally-binding ordinances that deprive corporations of their constitutional “rights”, recognize the rights of nature and refuse to realize Dillon’s rule and preemptive laws that would infringe upon these rights.

Over 150 communities have adopted this model since 1999, forming the Community Rights Movement. As the movement grows and as state governments take action against municipalities for their ordinances, communities begin to vividly see how suppressive their structure of law truly is.

Residents of Benton County, Oregon for example, have been said to be linked to a “domestic terrorism movement” (7) by their elected county commissioners for their ‘Food Bill of Rights Ordinance’ which secures their right to a sustainable food system and prohibits farming of GMOs in their community.


This article is not meant to devalue the hard work of passionate people in an attempt to control their food system, but rather to demonstrate that current food activism movements especially through the regulatory system are not breaking through corporate constraints. In order to truly take control of our food system, this needs to happen. We need to make fundamental changes to the structure of law that is working against us, not work around it.

The Community Rights Movement is stepping outside of the current food activist framework and directly opposing neoliberal interference through rights-based language and action to deprive corporations of their legal “rights” and powers. The beauty of this movement is not just limited to food sovereignty however. It’s about who decides, who governs and who is in charge. It’s about exposing the deficit of democracy communities face.



1. Holt-Gimenenz, Eric and Patel, Raj. Food Rebellions! Crisis and the Hunger for Justice. Cape Town, Dakar, Nairobi and Oxford, 2009.

2. Desmarais, A. A., Wiebe, N. and Wittman, H. Food Sovereignty, Reconnecting Food, Nature and Community. 2010. Published in U.S. by Food First Books.

3. Scholte, J. A. The Sources of Neoliberal Globalization. United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. 2005.  Accessed online, Jan. 2013. Available at$file/scholte.pdf

4.  Herman, J. Saving US Dietary Advice From Conflicts of Interest. Food and Drug Law Journal, 2010. 65 (2): 309-16.

5. Morris, J.A. Gaveling Down the Rabble.  How “Free Trade” is Stealing Our Democracy. Apex Press, New York. 2008.

6. Pennsylvania Constitution. Pennsylvania General Assembly. Accessed Feb. 2013. Available at:

7. Appellants´ Brief in Opposition to Respondent´s and Intervener’s Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. In the Circuit Court of the State of Oregon for the County of Benton. 2013. Dana Allen… Appellants’ vs. Benton County Elections…Case No. 12-10594.

Additional Resources