The Business, Entrepreneurship & Tax Law Review


International human rights law recognizes a right to adequate food. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“ICESCR”) upholds “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing, and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” The right is further enumerated in international law through additional conventions and standards and is continuously being interpreted and analyzed by United Nations (“U.N.”) expert bodies. The United States (“U.S.”), though a signatory to several international human rights conventions, including the ICESCR, has not ratified any convention that would make the right to adequate food enforceable; and the U.S. does not explicitly recognize a right to adequate food in its Constitution or in federal law. The current state of food insecurity and the strategies for addressing hunger in the U.S. are far from what international human rights standards dictate. The growth of more than 60,000 private charitable organizations distributing food to tens of millions of people in need is a clear indication that Americans are not guaranteed the right to food. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated and revealed the systemic inequities in the food system, which result in hunger and food insecurity. Around 57.4 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the start of the pandemic. The number of insecure people in the U.S. is expected to climb from 37 million pre-pandemic to more than 50 million by the end of the year. Ideally, the U.S. should ratify and implement the ICESCR; however, until it does so, this paper recommends that government actors draw on the comprehensive approach to the right to food under international human rights law to alleviate some of the issues that plague access to adequate food in the U.S. today. The international law approach to the human right to food does more than provide a framework of concrete standards and goals, as well as practical tools for exerting political pressure and facilitating coalition-building and mobilization. The framework also draws on the international community for its legitimacy, rather than on the fluctuations of political preferences at the national or subnational level. The international community is progressing toward the legal and practical realization of economic, social, and cultural (“ESC”) rights, and the U.S. is poised now to benefit from that process if it is willing to apply the standards and structures of the international human rights regime. This paper includes an overview of hunger and food insecurity in the U.S. as well as of the U.S.’s relationship to international human rights law and U.N. advocacy. A discussion then follows on current efforts to enshrine the human right to food as understood by international human rights norms in state constitutions in Maine and West Virginia. Next, this paper reflects on challenges and lessons learned from ongoing legislative efforts and opportunities to translate state and local gains in Maine to other states. Finally, the paper reflects on the role of U.N. advocacy by a growing national right-to-food movement in strengthening standards and policies to address hunger and food insecurity in the U.S.

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