By Julia Guerrein, Editor-in-Chief
Last month, Vermont Law School (VLS) and the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) announced the start of the Vermont Legal Food Hub. The Hub is housed in the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS).
The Legal Food Hub provides pro bono legal services, education, and training to farmers, food entrepreneurs, and related organizations.
“Often there is a reluctance to seek out an attorney until things have gone wrong,” explained Sophia Kruszewski, Assistant Professor and Director of CAFS. “Part of the program is the idea that by connecting those stakeholders with attorneys earlier on they can set up strong businesses that then might avoid the need to work with an attorney later on.”
Jennifer Rushlow, Associate Dean for Environmental Programs and Environmental Law Center Associate Professor of Law, began the first Legal Food Hub in 2014 when she worked at CLF in Boston. Since then, Legal Food Hubs have extended to more states, including Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, and now Vermont.
The Legal Food Hub Year in Review 2018 report quantifies the reach of the Legal Food Hub. From its inception in 2014 until the report was issued, the Legal Food Hub placed 375 cases and leveraged more than $2.5 million in pro bono legal services. The report also highlights the individual stories of some of the clients, such as an organic-certified farm, a kelp farm, and a company that makes and sells small-batch cocktail and soda simple syrups.
“A lot of farmers and food producers run into issues and are not sure what to do legally, and they have financial barriers, so hiring an attorney can be really prohibitive,” said Whitney Shields, a Masters of Food and Agriculture Law and Policy (MFALP) alum, Post-Graduate Clinical Teaching Fellow, and the Vermont Legal Food Hub Program Coordinator. “The hopes with this program is that we fill in that gap, and we are able to provide those services through the Hub, in addition to providing more experiences for clinician students.”
CAFS already runs a Food and Agriculture Clinic, and Kruszewski explained that the clinic does more law and policy issues. In contrast, the Hub is more about working directly with farmers. Although the clinic and Hub are separate, they are intertwined. The Hub is building a group of attorneys and firms that are working with the clients directly, and the Vermont Legal Food Hub just signed on their twelfth firm.
Given that the Vermont Legal Food Hub is in its early stages, Kruszewski explained they are working towards “finding a model that provides the services to meet the need while also ensuring attorneys in the state, particularly VLS alumni that maybe want to practice in food and agriculture, are still able to make it work for their business as well.”
Shields is actively finding clients for the Hub and distributing other CAFS materials. “I’ve done more of the outreach to organizations that work with farmers and food entrepreneurs, as well as going to a variety of different conferences that bring in farmers and food entrepreneurs,” she said.
While fielding calls and working with clients and attorneys, CAFS is collecting data in order to better meet the needs of Vermont farmers and food producers.
“We are collecting a lot of data from the intake calls that I’m taking, and our hopes in the next few years is to put together a . . . resource showing what are the Vermont specific barriers for farmers and food producers in an effort to provide more specific resources to that group of people,” Shields explained. She emphasized the importance of bringing both a story and data to the table, particularly if there are legislators sitting around it, too.
Through the work already done at CAFS, whether in the clinic, with other research projects, outreach, or now the Legal Food Hub, the focus is on finding solutions and developing a more sustainable and just food system. The Vermont Legal Food Hub is another avenue for VLS to help more people.
“It’s an opportunity to really look at how we can use law and policy to strengthen local and regional food systems,” said Shields.
Although the Hub is in its early stages, students who are interested or curious about food and agriculture law and policy are encouraged to take advantage of all of the opportunities and advantages CAFS has to offer.