Legislators have a bigger seat at the table than you might think.
Local politics find their way to your dinner table whether you like it or not.
From what makes organic food legally organic to how many chickens you can keep in your backyard, federal, state, and local laws govern your food. Lawmakers pick winners and losers with these decisions. Campaign donors influence lawmakers.
The bigger food debates – ethanol, genetic modification and importing – are mostly federal. So is the immigration argument, for that matter, as a significant portion of the immigration debate is a food production argument. In Wisconsin, though, we have our own concerns: dairy and beer, for two examples.
Wisconsin is butter-centric.
In 2011, freshman lawmaker, Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) attempted to change state law 97.18 that requires butter be served in restaurants unless a patron asks otherwise. That law also says only butter can be used in prisons, schools, and hospitals. The change was met with opposition and never made. Butter is still better, at least in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin has one of the more restrictive cottage food laws in the nation.
Are you known for your chocolate chip banana bread made with a dash of bourbon? Best keep that to yourself. You may sell jams, jellies, salsas and mustards under what is dubbed the “pickle law” here, but baked goods are not allowed. As recently as last year a change was suggested – introduced as AB 182 – to increase revenue from sales from $5,000 to $10,000 and to include baked goods. The law never passed. Proponents pointed floured fingers at assembly leader Robin Vos (R-Burlington). That’s right; the man who pushed Wisconsin into being a Right-to-Work state doesn’t think a law allowing $10,000 in sales from baked goods is fair.
Wisconsin loves beer.
And beer is big business. From brewing to distribution, there is money to be made — and shared with politicians. Rep. Vos took eight $500 donations from beer distributors on October 23, 2014. That’s $4,000 to his campaign account. What did those distributors find so important to support?
In 2011 Gov. Scott Walker’s budget included a plan to restrict breweries from buying distributorships. Touted as a way to restrict a certain big brewing company from moving into the state, the move burdened small breweries who often act as their own distributors. The state made an emergency rule to protect the smaller establishments in early 2012. Another new law allows home brewers to carry their product outside of their home. A 2010 ruling stood in the way of hobby brewers sharing in competitions. The new law lets a home brewer tote a few bottles to tastings.
Milwaukee is foraging important pathways in backyard food laws.
The city now allows for backyard chickens and bees. They are also encouraging neighborhood farming on vacant urban lots. A couple suburbs have made these changes, too, but most are resisting the idea of a chicken coop of one’s own. Brookfield, for example, has studied the issue for more than a year, but refused to make changes to allow for at-home egg production.
Food trucks, those wonderful self-contained mobile restaurants, have met with some resistance in both the city and suburbs. The city has four pages of food truck rules, including maps where the trucks cannot park. No food truck sales are allowed in the city’s 11th Aldermanic District. Ald. Joe Dudzik decided all approvals for locations must go through him for special permission, and in late January, the the Public Safety Committee of the Common Council agreed to his request. In a television interview, Dudzik argued that traffic problems were to blame for his decision. The vote is in front of the full Council soon.
Laws protect the food supply and allow for regulations that ensure safety. Those same laws can be made to restrict competition and create artificial demand. They even dictate how you can supply your own food. Think they can’t outlaw backyard tomato plants? Think again. Those dangerous wolf peaches were once known to be very poisonous.
It’s a good idea to keep up with what politicians are feeding you.
Note: a previous version of the column stated that the Common Council agreed to Ald. Dudzik’s request regarding food trucks. This has been corrected.