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A grounding legal education in the Food Law and Policy Clinic

This post was written by Olivia Klein and originally published by Harvard Law School’s Office of Clinical Programs on May 17, 2023.

Liz Turner ‘23 set her sights on law school with a clear vision. After spending nearly a decade working in the food space—in restaurant kitchens, as a farm hand, and as a specialty coffee roaster—she knew that to make the changes she hoped to see in the industry, she’d need a legal education to round out her advocacy toolkit.

“Something I had noticed even in in entry-level positions in the food system were the ways in which laws and regulations affect both the people who are working within the food system and the environment,” she reflects. “If you’re paying attention, you start to notice the incentives that laws and regulations give to people who, for example, are farming, to do or not do certain things that might protect or harm the environment.”

The Food Law and Policy Clinic was a major draw for Turner to come to Harvard Law School. The clinic, housed within Harvard Law School’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, is focused on shaping the laws and policies that govern the food system—precisely Turner’s area of interest.

Hailing from rural Vermont, Turner was imbued with an awareness of farming and agriculture from a young age. She fostered her passion for food and environmental justice during her college years, when she learned more about the harms of the industrial agriculture system, particularly the meat industry. In the clinic, Turner had the chance to turn her passion into legal action, working on the policies that shape the food system on both state and federal levels of government.

One such project is the Farm Bill Law Enterprise—a national partnership of law schools that develops policy recommendations that reflect the long-term needs of the U.S. food and agriculture system for the omnibus “farm bill” passed by Congress every five years. By working on recommendations to improve support for worker-owned cooperative farms, farmworkers, and sustainable farming for a changing climate, Turner developed a deeper understanding of the national policy landscape. She complemented her federal policy knowledge with additional experience on the clinic’s state-level projects, including drafting legislation that is now in the Massachusetts State House.

Another area of Turner’s focus within the clinic was working with a nonprofit group in East Cleveland, Ohio to effect change at the local level. The clinic works closely with East Cleveland community organizers to change regulations in a community living under antiquated municipal code created during the 1960s that have a discriminatory effect on the city’s Black population.

“For example, there are regulations that make composting functionally illegal in the entire city,” Turner explains. “So, we look at regulations like that and try to figure out ways to change them. We work with the [nonprofit] group there to help them carry out what their vision for East Cleveland could look like, which is exciting. It feels revolutionary, in a small way.”

While some of her clinical work focused on policy research and regulations, particularly how to effect change through legal and regulatory avenues, Turner appreciated the exposure to community lawyering gained through the East Cleveland project. “The audience is really different,” she says. “We’re working with a community group of non-lawyers. We do a lot of translation—here are some avenues where change might be possible, here’s how you would try to make that change, here’s where we can help.”

This eye towards practical change carried Turner through her time at HLS as she participated in two additional clinics. Hands-on work was critical to her motivations behind her legal education: “What’s interesting to me is the impact that law has on the world. I came to law school because I wanted to help people solve real challenges, whether on an individual basis or by identifying a shared need and finding a policy fix—that’s the work that’s exciting to me.”

This problem-solving, community-level work continued for Turner as a student in the Transactional Law Clinics. Hoping to build transactional skills for her future career, she found a perfect project match, working with a group that maintains a community garden in Boston and helping them secure the garden’s permanent home.

“I joined the Transactional Law Clinic with an eye towards my future career working in food. There’s a corner of the field that involves providing legal assistance to small farmers and other agriculture groups, and a lot of that work is transactional—real estate, entity formation, figuring out how to help folks start a co-op.”

Rounding out her clinical experiences, Turner also spent a semester in the Animal Law & Policy Clinic, working on emerging issues in the animal and food space, including drafting a comment to the USDA about cultivated meat labeling. Like in the Food Law and Policy Clinic, Turner found a community of students and instructors with common interests in the Animal Law & Policy Clinic.

“I wanted to be a part of the Animal Law & Policy Clinic to see what sort of work they were doing in the industrial meat industry space,” she reflects. “I found people with a shared passion for wanting to dismantle the animal agriculture system, which doesn’t respect animals, workers, or the environment.”

As she looks ahead towards a return to the food and agriculture world, Turner leaves a piece of advice for students who might be feeling divorced from their legal studies: “Clinics are very grounding. They really help connect what we learn in the classroom to what people in the world are actually going through. Whether people are coming to law school for a career change or without much work experience, I would give a big plug for clinics.”

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