Miami’s New Restrictions on Food Sharing and How They Might Be Unconstitutional

“We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” ― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

VICTORIA KLINE―Chapter 25 section 25 of the City of Miami Code of Ordinances, passed in June of 2020, is called Regulations for large group feedings. It sounds like it should be an ordinance regulating the proper nourishment for cattle or preventing the scattering of breadcrumbs for the downtown roosters. Something inhuman. But it’s not. It regulates the feeding of people—primarily those experiencing houselessness and/or food insecurity. If it is not modified or abandoned all together, Sec. 25-25 will do more harm than good for Miami’s most vulnerable population and potentially infringe upon constitutional rights.

Bans on “food sharing city-wide or in particular public places” are rarer and more extreme than other methods of poverty regulation. Food-sharing bans are present in roughly 9% of cities nationwide, compared to begging bans (present in 37–65% of cities nationwide) and camping/sleeping bans (present in 37–57% of cities nationwide).

Miami is not the first Florida city to enact such a ban. Florida is actually one of the nation’s leaders in food bans. Bans on food-sharing already existed in Tampa, Palm Bay, Hallandale Beach, Jacksonville, Gainesville, and Orlando.

Sec. 25-25 is Miami’s most recent move in criminalizing poverty. The statute requires individuals and organizations to apply for a permit before hosting a “large group feeding.” The ordinance defines a large group feeding as “an event intended to attract, attracting, or likely to attract 25 or more people. . . .” Permit applications must be submitted at least two business days before the feeding, and organizations/individuals are only permitted to host one feeding per week.

Furthermore, feeding locations are limited to five designated Miami Authority Parking lots. The five locations were chosen based on factors such as lighting, proximity “to locations where large groups of homeless are known to congregate,” and availability of adequate parking for organizers. Those who violate the ban will be fined $250 for their first violation and $500 for violations thereafter.

The 5 feeding locations, congregated downtown in close proximity to one another.

Manolo Reyes, one of the Commissioners sponsoring the ordinance, argued that the ordinance was necessary due to the negative consequences of large group feedings, such as unsanitary conditions and the spread of COVID-19.

Ironically, the passing of Sec. 25-25 occurred not long after Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs v. The City of Fort Lauderdale, a case revolving around a similar situation, which reached the Eleventh Circuit twice. One of the appealing plaintiffs, Food Not Bombs, was a non-profit organization that hosted free meals in a Fort Lauderdale park every week. The organization, and four other individuals, sued the City of Fort Lauderdale for a 2014 ordinance and a park rule that restricted food sharing, “alleg[ing] that the ordinance and a related park rule violated their First Amendment rights of free speech and free association and were unconstitutionally vague.” The ordinance at issue:

“impos[ed] restrictions on hours of operation and contain[ed] requirements regarding food handling and safety. Depending on the specific zoning district, a social service facility [could] be permitted, not permitted, or require a conditional use permit [to host feedings].”

The Eleventh Circuit sided with the plaintiffs in August of 2018, holding that the organization was “engag[ing] in a form of protected expression” when it was providing those in need with meals. In his holding, Judge Adalberto Jordan paralleled food sharing with the expression of man, writing:

“In understanding what is going on around us, context matters. Food shared with company differs greatly from a meal eaten alone. Unlike a solitary supper, a feast requires the host to entertain and the guests to interact. Lady Macbeth knew this, and chided her husband for ‘not giv[ing] the cheer’ at the banquet depicted in Shakespeare’s play. As she explained: ‘To feed were best at home; From thence, the sauce to meat is ceremony. Meeting bare without it.’ William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Act III, scene 4 (1606).”

However, the Court of Appeals refused to rule on whether the ordinance and related park rule violated the First Amendment or were unconstitutionally vague. Instead, the Eleventh Circuit left this decision up to the District Court on remand. The City repealed its ordinance but not its park rule, which was eventually found unconstitutional by the Eleventh Circuit in August of 2021.

Now that outdoor food sharing has been held to be “expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment,” where does that leave Sec. 25-25? To date, no one has filed an official complaint against the city claiming that the ordinance violates their constitutional rights. Yet, Miami’s ordinance closely resembles the Fort Lauderdale ordinance at issue in Food Not Bombs. For example, both ordinances contain distribution time restrictions and vest the city with the power to reject a permit.

Beyond legal concerns, Sec. 25-25 also introduces humanitarian and ethical concerns. Individuals and community organizations hosting “large feedings” may not be aware of the ordinance, and a $250–$500 fine could significantly harm them. Also, while having five designated feeding locations may increase people’s ability to find free food, the five locations are confined to a very small region of the city, making them inaccessible to those who cannot travel to the lots.

To echo the sentiment of Ernest Hemingway in A Movable Feast, group meals are important for the creation of bonds and community. Weakening the social connections that people experiencing houselessness and food insecurity have will have dire consequences, such as gaps in communication lines and decreased physical and mental health. The meals that once popped up when and where needed—physical manifestations of answers to prayers—will cease to fulfil the sundry needs they once met.

Without intervention, time will reveal the reverberations of Sec. 25-25. Should the constitutionally of the ordinance remain unchallenged, the power of Miami’s movable feasts will be stripped and so too will the strength of the communities that relied on them.