Pace University’s Elisabeth Haub School of Law has long educated leaders in environmental and advocacy law, producing more than 9,000 alumni around the world since its inception in 1976. It should therefore come as little surprise that the school will soon launch a Food and Beverage Law Clinic that addresses legal issues associated with a growing sustainable food industry.
“I’m really excited. I have been waiting to do this for many years,” said Professor Margot J. Pollans, the faculty director of the Pace-NRDC Food Law Initiative. She recently came to Pace University to help establish the food and beverage clinic after creating a similar clinic at UCLA in early 2016 as part of her two-year fellowship there with its food and law policy program.
As soon as next semester, in January 2017, Pace’s new clinic will assist local farmers, food entrepreneurs, micro brewers and distillers, and other activists navigate the modern food, agricultural and environmental climate of the surrounding tri-state area of White Plains, N.Y., where the university is located.
The clinic is especially important given this “moment in history where we are making changes in the way our food system is structured,” Pollans said. “Our food structure has been affected by climate change, and now people are becoming more aware of where their food comes from. Diet-related diseases such as heart disease and diabetes have prompted more people to look at what we are eating and the foods produced. After all, 10 percent of greenhouse gases and water contamination can be traced to agricultural practices.”
In the past decades, food sources and farms consolidated into bigger organizations and businesses, but today, more and more start-ups are being created, and the trend toward consolidation is reversing. “Smaller businesses are emerging, and part of the clinic’s mission is to provide equity into the system by creating access to land for populations traditionally excluded, and access to business ownership,” Pollans said. “In the NYC area, where land is expensive, there is a lot of competition for land between home owners, suburb development and farming. But there are lots of mechanisms to make land more affordable like agricultural easements or getting special zoning ordinance. Using these tools is not always user friendly, and we are here to help.”
As investments in “farm to table” businesses have grown, more businesses and organizations are in need of necessary but affordable or pro-bono legal counsel to effectively build more sustainable and environmentally-friendly agricultural practices. The clinic’s $400,000 grant from alumnus Rob Sands, and Constellation Brands, where Sands is CEO and President, has made offering this support possible, as has Pace Law’s project partner, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, its lawyers, scientists and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health and the environment. NRDC is committed to fixing the broken national food system and rebuilding strong, equitable and sustainable regional food systems.
According to Mark A Izeman, Senior Attorney and Director of the New York Program at NRDC, “This path-breaking clinic will provide much needed legal help to farmers and food revolutionaries in the region. It will also create a national food law model that others can replicate across the country. Together, NRDC and Pace are training a new generation of lawyers that will help rebuild our broken food systems and cultivate stronger, sustainablefarming economies.”
While it’s hard to measure the number of Hispanic clients and students who will benefit from the clinic, “Part of the mission of the clinic is to promote equity in the food system by supporting minority-owned businesses and programs that facilitate access to the means of food production for populations who have historically not had equitable access,” Pollans said. “Hispanic farmers and Hispanic-owned food businesses are absolutely part of the clinic’s client base.”
In addition, Pace Law students, 37 percent of which are Hispanic, will benefit greatly from this clinic. The venture will enroll six to 10 students to work with four to 10 clients per semester. As in most law school clinics, students will do the bulk of the legal work and client counseling under the supervision of the new clinic director, Jonathan Brown. The clinic’s pedagogical mission will be to teach students fundamental transactional lawyering skills, aid students in the development of a professional identity and help students think analytically and critically about the law and the role of lawyers in food systems. The clinic’s programmatic mission will be to facilitate development of a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable regional food system by providing direct legal services to individuals and organizations who seek to implement just and sustainable farming, food processing, and food distribution.
Examples of projects students may be involved in are as follows: A farmer operating on leased land seeking to purchase nearby land that has come available and wishes to explore options—including available loans, grants and purchase of development rights—to make the purchase feasible; a mid-sized produce farmer looking for assistance in determining applicability of new food safety regulations to his farm and compliance obligations under those regulations; a mid-size farmer needing help in negotiating and drafting a purchase contract with a restaurant or other venue; and a start-up multi-use community space planning to host a community kitchen and community events seeking assistance with a range of legal issues including real estate, zoning and corporate formation.
Beyond working with clients, the food and beverage law initiative will also host an annual lecture focusing on critical food law topics (the first annual lecture was held on January 27, 2016) and has a workshop series for law students and lawyers to build the capacity of the legal community to deal with food and agriculture issues.
Currently, there are six to seven schools with food law programs across the country. There are several clinics that work on policy issues (including one at Harvard, one at Vermont and one at UCLA), a few that work on environmental issues (including Duke and several others), and two more that work on food law transactional issues (at Michigan State and at Stanford), as Pace plans to do.
As this New York State university joins the ranks of those providing law clinics for a growing industry, it too will serve as an example for other institutions of higher education to follow. Already Pace students have shown great interest in the program, as have local tri-state food and beverage organizations and businesses seeking legal advice.
“The goal beyond the two years of funding is to expand our fundraising and establish something permanent,” Pollans said about the future. She envisions more students one day pursuing law careers in this growing food and beverage field or at least having the expertise to offer pro-bono assistance to farmers and others as they work for more mainstream law firms.
Together, future Pace lawyers, and students graduating from other such programs, can one day help build a new, sustainable future. •