Manna food co-op heading to Ohio Supreme Court

LAGRANGE, Ohio — The Ohio Supreme Court is the next stop for a Lorain County family that claims their constitutional rights were violated when their home and local food co-op was raided in December 2008.

Lawsuit

The lawsuit, Jacqueline Stowers, Et. al., v. Ohio Department of Agriculture, Et. al., was filed shortly after the incident occurred Dec. 1, 2008. The judge decided in the initial lawsuit that the Stowers were trying to claim an exception in the state law that does not exist.

Appeal to be filed. An appeal is expected to be filed in the Ohio Supreme Court after the Ninth District Court of Appeals issued their decision June 6. The Stowers have 45 days to file the appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court. The deadline is July 21.

It will be up to the discretion of the Ohio Supreme Court whether or not they hear the case.

What happened

The Stowers family was operating a co-op, by their definition, that sells food and other products to members. Stowers, her husband John, their seven children and their daughter-in-law, work for the co-op, Manna. Manna operates out of their home, and occupies one room and an overflow room. The main room contains freezers and the overflow room is used for canned goods.

Manna has approximately 100 members. In order to become a member, one must pay a $10 initial fee, fill out an application and complete an interview with Jacqueline Stowers.

Most of the products sold are food products, including raw chicken, beef, turkey and eggs.

The Manna price list represents a mark up from the price at which Manna obtains products from suppliers.

According to court records, Manna pays sales tax on the amounts that it collects from members. The Stowers declare Manna’s profits as income on their taxes.

The raid

A search warrant was executed on the Manna rooms and the rest of the Stowers’ home in December 2008. Manna’s food products and other items were seized as part of an Ohio Department of Agriculture and Lorain County General Health Department investigation of Manna as an unlicensed retail food establishment.

Farm and Dairy previously reported the Stowers alleged that “during the raid, at least one if not several police entered the home with guns drawn” and that the family’s home was also surrounded by police with guns drawn.

Atty. Maurice A. Thompson, who is handling the Stowers’ case, said there are some other options the family is pursuing in case the Ohio Supreme Court decides not to hear the case.

Remaining issues

The issue that remains the most important to Stowers in the case is whether a private membership should be treated the same as a retail store as far as regulations and licensing are concerned. The other issue is what the definition of a co-op is, according to the state law.

The Stowers claim their co-op stores food and doesn’t process it, so they don’t fit the regulations for retail food establishments.

Thompson said the Stowers are also pursing legislative options, suggesting legislation to create language in the Ohio state law that would protect co-ops and make them exempt from the same regulations as grocery stores.

“The bottom line is, you shouldn’t need a license to store food like our grandmothers knew how to do and the Stowers know how to do,” said Thompson.

He added the Stowers want to be able to work with members to get the food they need to feed their families, and to be left alone by the government.

“They just want the right to be left alone and remain private,” Thompson said.

Lorain County Assistant Prosecutor Scott F. Serazin said there are no issues pertaining to the constitution in this case and it is just case of feeling exempted from the state law.

“The court ruled that the statutory regulations are reasonable,” Serazin said.

He added that means the Ohio state law applies to them. This includes the law that requires retail food establishments to be inspected.

He said Manna still does not have the proper licensing.

“They are claiming an exception that doesn’t exist in Ohio law,” Serazin said.

He added that they are to follow the law, including having the proper license, commercial freezers and other requirements as required by the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

“The court is saying this isn’t a true co-op,” Serazin said.

About the Author

Kristy Foster Seachrist lives in Columbiana County raising sheep and horses. She earned her degree from Youngstown State University and has worked in both print and broadcast journalism. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/fosterk96. More Stories by Kristy Foster Seachrist

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