Something is bugging Steve Spellman so it’s time for another installment of Steve Spellman, On Liberty. In this piece, part of which will likely be published in the Columbia Missourian, Steve takes on the pesky city government that seeks to limit the most basic of actions in an attempt to somehow save us from our snacks.
Columbia, Missouri might be famous for many things: the University of Missouri’s flagship campus, the MKT & KATY Trail, the nation’s best state games — the Show-Me State Games, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s boyhood home, and the SWAT raid video showing police shooting dogs last year. If nothing else, it has now become known the world over for the place where cicada ice cream was produced, that is, until the makers were intimidated away by over-restrictive health code regulations.
“You Want Flies With That, Sir?”
Cicadas are often confused with locusts, but this batch only comes out of the ground every 13 years. Columbia is one town that has them flying all over the place: in people’s hair, all over trees, etc. Their mating buzz is loud: it’s a combination of annoying and amusing, depending on one’s temperament.
The novelty of the moment inspired a brainstorm among the staff at Sparky’s Homemade Ice Cream, a local downtown hipster spot. So when their creativity became reality, Cicada Ice Cream was born. Once word of its existence and availability got out, the first (and only) half-batch sold out within an hour. There’s also been a mixture of stories (now spread around the world) about how the local City of Columbia Health Department put the kibosh on it — only some of which is true.
“No Ice Cream for you”
It was reported by the store manager, that the cicadas were fully boiled, in keeping with standard sanitary food preparation – so not just dirty bugs thrown in a tub of Vanilla. I went and talked with a guy I know who works there, Tony Layson, who clarified that after Sparky’s first made some and sold out of it, the owner became concerned about what the health code might say about using these non-standard ingredients.
So he proactively called the City Health Department to inquire about the guidelines (if there were any) for preparing cicadas. The Health Department staffer replied with a chuckle and something like “you know you can’t do that.” The Health Department official wasn’t overly harsh, but made it clear that: 1.) all ingredients in commercial food must come from a certified source, and 2.) the Health Code does not specifically address how cicadas should be cooked.
Beware the Naturally-Occuring Ingredients
So wild, natural ingredients directly harvested from nature, especially natural ingredients not specifically on the government’s list of allowed foods, are not allowed. So by this logic, if a local restaurateur legally shot a deer, or grew his/her own tomatoes or lettuce, etc., and even if the food were fresh, and from a seemingly healthy animal or plant, and the food were fully and safely cooked, the food derived from natural processes could still not be served in a restaurant, unless the restaurateur had the proper certification. I suppose if there were a certified collector of cicadas that met the food safety and inspection criteria, and then sold it to a restaurant, only then could the restaurant (or ice cream shop, in this case) use that material in its food served to voluntarily paying customers, who knew exactly what they were ingesting—and then only if the letter of the law addressed the lawful method by which the specific critter could be cooked for human consumption. That’s because you must have permission from the authorities, whose regulations exist to keep you safe. Hence the Health Department’s, “you can’t do that,” even for food that might be good for you.
So cicada ice cream appears to be illegal, but here’s the thing: people bought it. Lots of people gladly went out of their way to rush to Sparky’s to purchase it with their own hard-earned money. And they told their friends, and they were happy about it, and there have been no reports of any resulting sickness. So the ice cream shop voluntarily made it and sold it, and the customers gladly, voluntarily bought it and ate it. And it’s against the law.
You Can’t Trust Anybody, Even the Trustworthy
Can’t we trust a local merchant who obviously cares about serving the members of his/her community with a product they clearly want? Can’t we trust our fellow citizens to choose what they eat? If the food were bad, the word would spread quickly and people wouldn’t buy it anymore. If it actually hurt people, the law is sufficient to bring charges against the food service provider. If the customer used the product and then went and hurt somebody under the influence of that product, there are already laws in place to handle such situations.
Even if the law could be set up to be responsive enough to accommodate new issues that arise (like how to prepare a specific variety of bug that appears for the first time in over a decade), the bigger issue is why we are so subservient to an authority that has the force of law — the guns of government — to enforce such petty restrictions on human behavior — an authority to which we are so trained to be subservient that even responsible people feel they must first ask for permission to peacefully live their lives and voluntarily interact with their fellow man.
The War on Some Foods
To be clear, the law claims jurisdiction over what food may be sold. If any part of the food product is not specifically detailed in the Health Code, it apparently defaults to being outside the bounds of the law. That is to say that cicada ice cream vendors and purchasers are outlaws. We are so conditioned to observe this authority, even when it is so obviously unreasonable, that we are just thankful the police aren’t directed to arrest both the store owners and their customers who bought this contraband before its illegality was discovered.
Many people would not buy cicada ice cream. I’m not sure I would. People do a lot of things I wouldn’t do. I surely do things other people might not want to do. But I don’t support laws that unduly restrict human interaction and creativity, to restrict things I wouldn’t do, or don’t approve of, or don’t understand. But I don’t believe the Health Code is purposefully sinister; it’s just dumb, or at least parts of it, and altogether is really complex — which might actually be worse. I’m glad Sparky’s at least tried to serve the community and it’s too bad our City government won’t allow them to.
PART II: RELATED EXAMPLES OF GOOD BEHAVIOR WHICH ARE ALSO AGAINST THE LAW
“Normal” Organic Produce is OK to Sell, Just Not Where It’s Grown
Though, this is not the first limit on reasonable (even desirable) economic interactions here in Columbia in recent times, a local ordinance has limited where a local group can sell fresh produce. The Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture is a local not-for-profit coalition that advocates for local gardening of fresh produce while the group maintains a small urban farm and several community gardens around town. On one of several urban garden plots near the city center, they operate a simple street-side stand a few days a week, selling corn and tomatoes and radishes, etc. I’ve bought a few things there myself. This spring, it came to their attention that their urban farm was zoned for residential use only and did not allow for “commercial” selling of their produce. In keeping with the demands of city government, the group relocated their stand a block or so away where a nearby business allowed them to set up in a (commercially-zoned) parking lot. So they moved to be within the bounds of the law, but the rules are obviously outside the bounds of common-sense. Hopefully they can get permission to sell on their own land in the near future. Desirable behavior is unduly restricted by red tape. I’m glad they found a work-around to this over-regulation.
Downtown Redevelopment Welcomed, Except When It’s Not
Just last January, a respected local developer submitted plans to the City Planning and Zoning Commission for permission to rezone a parcel for their “College and Walnut” apartment building project. This would be an infill project to redevelop a surface parking lot and 4 older homes. The plans looked great, and seemed to be exactly what many residents, college students, and even city planners have said for some time they wished developers would produce in the community. But the Commission turned them down, in a close vote. Former P&Z commissioner (and now elected City Council member) Helen Anthony was quoted as explaining, “the building itself was perfect for downtown — just the innovative development that we need. It was beautiful and multi-use. My issue was that they were asking for open zoning.” I understand the zoning the commission desired would have given the City government more control over how the property is used.
So the commission wanted to have additional control over the requested standard commercial zoning before allowing the builders to use their own money to build a very desirable building on their own land that would, of course, be constructed to the latest building codes. And, unlike a number of other local downtown developers lately, they were not asking for any subsidies or tax discounts.
Read the Missourian story HERE
The developers were trying to make a living by serving their community with an apartment building, but the system wouldn’t allow them to because it didn’t fit the established rules, or the preferences of the authorities. At least Councilwoman Anthony admits, “We need to go back and change some of the ways we do zoning.” The City Council wisely chose to override the Planning and Zoning Commission and grant the reasonable rezoning request, so this desirable improvement to the community can go forward. I’m glad the standard government response did not scare them away, and they were allowed to improve the community.
Low-Income Residential In-Fill OK, If You Jump Through The Hoops… And Wait a Few Years
A few years ago a local photographer, Amir Ziv, got an idea for an in-fill redevelopment near the city center. He applied to the City to build three “cottage” homes on two adjacent vacant lots in a low-income neighborhood. Though one City Commissioner said they “would like to give a developer who’s trying to do something outside of the box some leeway,” they didn’t likethe way he had the modest garages pointed. The project also got classified as an apartment building, so he needed to pay tens of thousands of dollars to unnecessarily upgrade the sewer lines, etc. Mr. Ziv responded that the extra sewer cost would break his budget — even responding that if the city requires it, the city should pay for it themselves. The result was a 2 year standoff, until the City Council, though not making an exception from the rules for this case, ended up approving to blow $15,000of taxpayer money for a wasteful upgrade to a sewer line. But that’s the rules. What’s that again about “job creation?” I’m glad Mr. Ziv was resilient enough to be allowed to provide more innovative low income housing in our community, in spite of an illogical authority that greatly delayed the project and added additional costs to be borne by the tax payer.
But It’s Not Really About The Cicadas
Government exists to protect our rights and to bring to justice people who unfortunately choose to kill, steal, defraud, or poison their fellow citizens. But when the law seeks to protect us from each other in so many complex ways, even with benevolent intentions, the collateral damage is often the stifling of human creativity, otherwise peaceful interactions, and diverse activities. I admit the fact that cicada ice cream is not specifically provided for in the local Health Code, therefore you can’t put the things in ice cream, may seem trivial. The story is silly, except that this case is so representative of endless other liberties – both in the civil and economic sense – that we have lost over time.
Our individual and collective freedoms are subtlety lost to the endless laws and regulations on the books that no human can possibly keep track of. These are regulations on autopilot – that assume to take our freedoms by default (even if in order to “protect” us) and are held up as seemingly gracious to give us at least some of the freedoms that were ours to begin with. Therefore we are trained to feel compelled to ask for permission from authorities before living our lives peacefully and voluntarily with each other. “Am I allowed to do that?” – well, you know you better ask for permission first.
Any laws that prevent us from living as naturally and peacefully as we desire, are themselves unnatural laws.
Steve Spellman is a life-long Boone County citizen and (among other things) hosts the “Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum,” exploring the diverse concepts of human freedom each Tuesday 5:00PM-6:00PM, on local community radio station 89.5FM KOPN (streaming at www.kopn.org/listen) in beautiful downtown Columbia, Missouri.