Legalizing the Homemade Food Movement

29 Feb, 2012

by Brie Mazurek, via Grist.org

Homemade cupcakesThere’s no doubt a homemade food renaissance has taken root. All around the country, home picklers, jammers, and bakers have been looking for ways to transform hobby food production into small artisan businesses. In many states, however, selling food you’ve made in your home is against the law.

In California, for instance, it’s currently a misdemeanor for home artisans to sell their goodies in the open marketplace. Case in point: Last June, Department of Public Health officials in San Francisco shut down ForageSF’s popular Underground Market, which featured mostly home producers, because its sellers were not compliant with local and state regulations.

But due to a campaign launched by the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), the laws might change this year. The Oakland-based SELC recently teamed up with Los Angeles Assembly Member Mike Gatto to introduce the California Homemade Food Act (AB 1616),  a “cottage food” bill that would legalize the sale of certain foods produced in home kitchens.

“There are a lot of hoops to get a food business started. That’s what prompted the cottage food law campaign,” says SELC research associate and campaign coordinator Christina Oatfield. Founded in 2010 by attorneys Janelle Orsi and Jenny Kassan, the SELC provides legal research and assistance to foster local and sustainable economies and business ventures.

Currently, state law requires that any foods produced for sale be prepared in a certified kitchen or food facility using commercial-grade equipment that is inspected by the health department. For many startups, this means renting a commercial kitchen space, which costs upwards of $25 per hour or $1,500 per month — a large expenditure, particularly for hobby food producers who just want to make a bit of supplemental income. Additionally, shared kitchens are often not a practical option for producers who make specialty items such as gluten-free baked goods.

For entrepreneurs who want to open their own kitchen, the investment and risks are greater. In addition to the costs of buying or renting a brick-and-mortar space and furnishing it with commercial-grade equipment (often several times the cost of home kitchen appliances), there are other fixed expenditures, such as insurance and health department inspections. “It can easily exceed $100,000 with equipment and infrastructure work,” says Oatfield. “That’s a huge barrier to a startup entrepreneur, especially in these tough economic times.”

A growing movement

To date, more than 30 states have cottage food laws on the books, many of which have been passed in the last couple of years. Each bill is unique to the place where it is proposed. In Texas, for instance, where the battle has been especially contentious, the bill passed, but lawmakers tacked on a list of complex labeling rules. In New Jersey, a proposed bill has focused entirely on home-baked goods, while the one proposed in Illinois extends to farmers market sales, and the one that passed in Colorado made it a point to explicitly prohibit homemade products that are “infused with medical marijuana.”

Oatfield sees this trend as a response to both the economic downturn of 2008 and the surge of interest in local food over the last few years. “There’s a growing awareness among consumers about food systems issues and enthusiasm for buying local and knowing the person who made your food,” she says.

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