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Vermont Food Access and the “Right to Food”: Using the Human Right to Food to Address Hunger in Vermont

Vermont Food Access and the “Right to Food”: Using the Human Right to Food to Address Hunger in Vermont

K. Heather Devine

The greatest health risk in the world today is hunger.[1] One out of nine people in the world do not get enough to eat—meaning they do not get enough calories, nutrients, or both.[2] Hunger and malnutrition threaten global health at a greater rate than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.[3]

Hunger is not restricted to developing nations. Fourteen percent of United States households are food insecure—they cannot consistently access enough food for their households.[4] Closer to home, nearly 80,000 Vermonters, more than 20,000 of whom are children, are food insecure.[5] More than a third of Vermonters report they cannot afford to buy nutritious food, or they cannot buy enough food.[6]

The global hunger problem is not a problem of sufficiency. Globally and domestically, there is enough food to feed the world, yet that food does not reach all the people who need it.[7] The problem is food access.

Around the world, political leaders, scholars, and activists have started arguing that food access is a human right.[8] The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights declares that all people have the right “to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food . . . .”[9] More than 100 nations now legally recognize a right to food.[10] The United States does not.[11]

This Note does not address whether the United States should embrace a right to food. This Note argues the right to food is a useful frame for understanding and addressing hunger within the United States, even though the United States does not recognize the right. Historically, the United States has treated hunger as a temporary caloric deficiency.[12] Food stamps and food pantries are reasonable solutions if hunger is a temporary caloric deficiency.[13] However, the right to food suggests that hunger and its causes are more complex—that hunger is not only a biological problem but also a social problem.[14] Moreover, as a social problem, hunger exists within a legal architecture, and governments can change that architecture to mitigate hunger.[15]

This Note explores a small sample of laws affecting food access in Vermont as an exercise in illustrating how governments can use the right to food framework to better address hunger. This Note describes the right to food, then uses the right to food framework to examine the current legal architecture of hunger in Vermont.

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[1] Hunger, World Food Programme, https://www.wfp.org/hunger (last visited Nov. 23, 2016).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Alisha Coleman-Jensen et al., U.S. Dep’t of Agric., Household Food Security in the United States in 2014, at 8 (2015).

[5] Vermont Hunger Facts, Hunger Free Vt., https://www.hungerfreevt.org/learn/what-is-the-issue (last visited Nov. 23, 2016) (noting that this amounts to about 17% of Vermont’s children).

[6] Id.

[7] World Food Programme, supra note 1. See also Olivier de Schutter, The Right to Food: An Overview by Olivier de Schutter, YouTube (Oct. 22, 2014), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GWDkenSJMc (explaining that government recognition of technological advances in agriculture would not solve the hunger problem) [hereinafter de Schutter, The Right to Food].

[8] Lidija Knuth & Margret Vidar, Food & Agric. Org. of the U.N., Constitutional and Legal Protection of the Right to Food Around the World 32 (2011) (analyzing right-to-food recognition in 106 countries around the world); Olivier de Schutter, Former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Inst. for Interdisciplinary Research in Legal Sci., Univ. of Louvain, Visiting Professor of Law at Yale Law Sch., Keynote Address at the Yale Food Systems Symposium: New Alliances that Shape a Food Movement (Oct. 30, 2015) (discussing international approaches to hunger, including the right to food); Michael J. McDermott, Constitutionalizing an Enforceable Right to Food: A New Tool for Combating Hunger, 35 B.C. Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 543, 546 (2012); Marc J. Cohen & Mary Ashby Brown, Access to Justice and the Right to Adequate Food, 6 Sustainable Dev. L. & Pol’y 54 (2005); Flavio Luiz Schieck Valente, The Human Right to Food Movement in Brazil, in 2 Food And Human Rights in Development 182 (Wenche Barth Eide & Uwe Kracht, eds., 2007). See also UVM Food Systems Summit: The Right to Food: Power, Policy, and Politics in the 21st Century, Univ. of Vt., http://www.uvm.edu/foodsystems/?Page=summit2015.html&SM=summitmenu.html (last visited Nov. 23, 2016), (presenting food activists advocating for the right to food; particularly useful are the works of keynote speakers Raj Patel (http://rajpatel.org/) and Smita Narula (https://twitter.com/SmitaNarula)).

[9] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights art. 11, Dec. 16, 1966, 993 U.N.T.S. 3 [hereinafter Covenant].

[10] Knuth & Vidar, supra note 8, at 32.

[11] Ann M. Piccard, The United States’ Failure to Ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Must the Poor Be Always with Us?, 13 Scholar 231, 232 (2010). See also Linda M. Keller, The American Rejection of American Rights as Human Rights & the Declaration of Independence: Does the Pursuit of Happiness Require Basic Economic Rights?, 19 N.Y.L. Sch. J. Hum. Rts. 557, 560–64 (2003) (discussing how the United States refuses to recognize economic, social, and cultural rights). 

[12] See Joel Berg, Ctr. for Am. Progress, Doing What Works to End U.S. Hunger: Federal Food Programs Are Effective, But Can Work Even Better 1 (2010) (discussing how federal nutrition assistance programs have virtually eliminated starvation within the United States); Tatiana Andreyeva et al., Dietary Quality of Americans by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation Status: A Systematic Review, 49 Am. J. Preventative Med. 594, 594 (2015) (“SNAP effectively alleviates food insecurity in terms of caloric, macronutrient, and micronutrient intake.”). See also Telephone Interview with Faye Conte, Advocacy & Educ. Dir., Hunger Free Vt. (Nov. 25, 2015) (on file with author) (discussing how the federal government designed SNAP as temporary food assistance); Interview with Michelle Lapine McCabe, Dir. of Cmty. Engagement & Food Access, The Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport, Inc., in New Haven, Conn. (Oct. 31, 2015) (on file with author) (discussing how communities assume food pantries are temporary food sources).

[13] Telephone Interview with Faye Conte, supra note 12; Interview with Michelle Lapine McCabe, supra note 12; Interview with John Sayles, CEO, Vt. Foodbank, in Barre, Vt. (Oct. 23, 2015) (on file with author).

[14] See supra note 8 (particularly Flavio Luiz Schieck Valente and the work of Smita Narula).

[15] Id.

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