Although California is seen as the birthplace of the local food movement, home-based food operations are prohibited. That may be about to change.
Dafna Kory first sold her homemade jalapeño jam at a clandestine farmers market in San Francisco. The jam was a hit and so was the Underground Farmers Market that brought it to consumers. But the market was shut down by the Department of Public Health because the sellers did not comply with city and state regulations.
Their crime? Most of the vendors produced their products in home kitchens.
Although California is considered the birthplace of the local food movement in the United States and despite the tremendous enthusiasm for handmade, small-batch products nationwide, laws regulating food production are quite strict. Home-based food operations, from bread-baking to fruit-drying, are expressly prohibited.
Now, the California Homemade Food Act—which was introduced to the California State Assembly by Assemblyman Mike Gatto and is backed by the Sustainable Economies Law Center, the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, and community garden project Proyecto Jardin—could change all that, dramatically improving the business opportunities available to small-scale food entrepreneurs like Kory.
After the market shutdown last summer, Kory had to decide whether to continue her business, INNA Jam, or let her jam-making slip back into a hobby. She had a product that sold, branding that worked, and customers who wanted to buy, but the leap from cooking at home to acquiring the formal licensing and commercial kitchen space needed to legally sell her product was steep. Renting commercial kitchen space costs more than $25 an hour or $1,500 a month, significantly increasing the costs of a fledgling business, according to Kirsten Bourne of Bi-Rite Market, a San Francisco grocer that features almost exclusively artisanal products.
To solve this problem, the Califonia Homemade Food Act would permit home production and sale of certain non-potentially hazardous items, including breads and dry-storage baked goods, jams and jellies, candy, granola, roasted coffee, dried tea, honey, and other items with a low risk of supporting toxic microorganisms.
“This bill will allow people to have the much-needed incubation phase of their business, without the overwhelming costs of permits and kitchen rental.” says Iso Rabins, founder of Forage SF, which organized the Underground Market where several Bay Area food businesses got their start in 2011.
Since it was introduced in February, the legislation has secured a slate of bipartisan supporters. On April 10, it will come for a vote in the Assembly's health committee. If the bill passes, young businesses will be able to legally test their product in market, develop branding, and build a customer base—all without having to invest large amounts of capital.
Megan Gordon, owner and head baker at Marge Bakery, says starting a food business is “scary and tenuous, at best. To be able to begin on a very small scale at home would be such a nurturing, encouraging way for small business owners to begin.”
More than half of U.S. states have adopted cottage food laws. Janelle Orsi, co-founder of the SELC, says many laws have been enacted in response to the economic downturn. “Starting a small food business a great option in one respect because most people are capable of making food,” she says.
The California Homemade Food Act would create opportunities for unemployed and underemployed people who need to supplement their income. And legalization of cottage food production would support local economies in other ways. When more food is produced and purchased on a small scale, those dollars recirculate within the community. “If we buy a loaf of Wonder bread or Orowheat bread, Entemann’s, Hostess, or Sara Lee pastries or Thomas’ English muffins, a good portion of the money we spend leaves our community and may not come back,” Orsi says.
The act's passage would also mean access to more diverse, higher-quality and fresher food products for consumers, especially those in underserved communities. “[The act] allows individuals to vote with their forks and to support the values of a sustainable food system,” says Dave Stockdale, executive director of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture.
There are good reasons behind California’s strict regulation of food production—mishandled foods can be dangerous. The proposed act prohibits home production of non-shelf-stable foods like meat and dairy, which are more likely to cause foodborne illness, and also includes safety regulations, labeling, and sales requirements.
And no matter what the products being prepared, home-production veterans Gordon and Kory insist a food safety class is essential for new producers. “Of course there is still a need to make sure artisans understand and use proper sanitation protocols, because mistakes not only potentially harm individual eaters, but could also hinder the local cottage food artisan movement,” Stockdale says.
Though California's Homemade Food Act does not cap business income like the bills in several other states, it does require that food be made in a residential kitchen, which limits the scale of the operation and prohibits construction of kitchens simply for the purpose of making "homemade" foods. Entrepreneurs who are successful out of home kitchens will eventually need to graduate to a commercial kitchen space or manufacturing facility if they want to increase their production and keep up with demand.
Kory's INNA Jam recently reached that milestone: The scale of her production began to exceed the capacity of a shared commercial kitchen space, and she recently leased her own kitchen in Emeryville. Despite her success thus far, the financial hurdles remain very real. Through Kickstarter, Kory was able to raise the $25,000 needed to stock her kitchen with equipment, but she would have never gotten this far without first testing her jams at the Underground Market.
Stockdale notes a nearly endless demand for diverse offerings of local, safely produced, and delicious products in the Bay Area. “The more alternatives to the industrial food system, the better—for local economies, communities, and people’s health,” he says.
Photo by Emily Voigtlander