Pies with a permit: The California Homemade Food Act heads to the vote
on April 9, 2012
Rozlyn Steele offers a morsel of lemon chess pie to a customer at the Grand Lake farmer’s market in Oakland. She stands proudly behind a neatly checkered table displaying stacks of golden cookies, seasonal pies, and flaky biscuits from Little Ladybug Bakery. But before Steele started renting commercial kitchen space from a catering company, she was one of a number of renegade food entrepreneurs who sold baked goods “illegally” prepared at home.
Steele adjusts a cream-colored pillbox hat perched to protect her hair against the Saturday morning drizzle. “I used to sell pies right over there by the Kwik Mart,” she says, pointing just outside the farmer’s market boundaries. On the sidewalk.
Existing California state regulations prohibit cottage food industries—the technical name for businesses that prepare certain kinds of foods in private home kitchens—from selling goods to the public. Even some bake sales are currently prohibited in California, and small businesses operating without proper permits risk fines and closure. But if the California Homemade Food Act (AB 1616) is passed on April 10, clandestine bakers, picklers, jam makers, and granola preparers will be one step closer on the path towards legitimacy.
Supporters of the bill like Esperanza Pallana, an Oakland resident and urban farmer, say that cottage food laws display an “important shift in perception and culture.” She adds that they are a natural next step from growing food to wanting to cook and prepare the foods yourself—and sharing the bounty. “People we know might be manufacturing these cookies,” she says, and that connection means a wider understanding both of where food comes from and where it is manufactured.
As the coordinator of the Oakland Food Policy Council, a group that makes recommendations to the city on how to make the local food system more equitable and sustainable, Pallana says that poor nutrition and food access challenges are symptomatic of deeper social issues. “We need to support the development of a new food economy,” she says. To her, that also means promoting living wage jobs and local ownership opportunities, as well as encouraging the production of affordable healthy foods. “Not only will this enable supplementary income,” she writes in an email, “but it will also provide a pathway to entrepreneurship.”
The bill could help break down the financial barriers to entry for small-scale food producers, says Christina Oatfield, who has been coordinating the bill’s campaign on behalf of the Sustainable Economies Law Center for over a year. For example, she says, the cost of renting a commercial kitchen can be prohibitive for entrepreneurs during start-up, especially in the present economy. “People are looking for creative ways to empower new businesses,” Oatfield says.
Most people won’t be able to quit their day jobs to live solely on the income raised through homemade jars of marmalade and preserves. However, in a city where local food companies like Blue Chair Fruit garner national press and even cookbook deals for their jams, it might come as a surprise that the California Homemade Food Act does not define a maximum annual profit margin for businesses to fall under the bill’s umbrella.
But AB 1616 is not intended to allow large-scale businesses to operate out of homes, says Oatfield. “If you’re making food at home, there are limits already in place,” she explains, such as on the number of fridges, ovens, and availability of storage space in the home. Further amendments to the California Homemade Food Act may also regulate the number of additional employees a home-based business is allowed to have.
If the bill passes on Tuesday, gaining entrance into local farmer’s markets may still require some business owners to transition to a commercial kitchen. It will be up to the discretion of individual market organizations about whether they will allow their suppliers to bring in foods made at home, rather than in a commercial space. For bakers like Steele, who now travels the farmer’s market circuit as her primary source of income, renting a commercial space three days a week for baking became a necessary expense.
Even when she was using her own kitchen, Steele already had her ServSafe license (a food safety certification), professional training from culinary school, and 12 years of food service work under her belt. As food entrepreneurs shift from hobbyists to professionals, using a commercial kitchen has benefits in terms of scale, productivity, networking, and professionalism. “The cottage food bill could help people get to that point,” Steele says, but adds she could never go back to working in her home kitchen.
The most recent edits to AB 1616, according to Oatfield, have developed a “two-tier” system for small business food entrepreneurs. The first tier requires a simple registration with the local health department and costs a nominal fee. Unless a formal complaint is made, there is no home kitchen inspection. To ensure public safety, participants must attend a two-hour food handler’s course, at a cost of $25, and must sell directly to consumers rather than to restaurants or retail outlets.
The second tier would require an official inspection, which in San Francisco costs approximately $400 annually. This license would allow participants to sell products to retail outlets like restaurants, grocery stores, and cafes. The same two-hour class costing approximately $25 would be required.
Under this system, the only foods that would permitted to be prepared in private kitchens are those designated “non-hazardous,” such as non-perishable dry goods, pickles with a pH of 4.6 or below, and baked treats. Aspiring charcuterie or ice cream culinarians will still have to prepare their products in commercial kitchens. Products that must be kept in a fridge for food safety reasons would not be allowed to be made by cottage businesses.
But some feel that the bill does not go far enough to protect public safety. Linda Harris, the associate director of the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at UC Davis, calls the bill “well intentioned, but misguided,” saying that safe commercial food production is exceptionally difficult to replicate under domestic conditions. A lack of sanitary storage space, mistakes in the canning process, pets present in the home, or improper equipment could be potentially serious sources of contamination in a non-commercial space, she says.
Urban farmer Pallana believes that some cottage industries have already built a relationship of trust with consumers. “I think the rise in home crafted goods has dispelled a lot of the fear,” she says, adding that “I do not know if this means all folks will be trusting of all products.”
So far 32 states have already adopted cottage food bills, and nations like Ireland have similar laws. And while California regulations prohibits food production in private homes, the lack of a cottage food law in the state has not stopped micro-businesses from operating under the radar. Supporters of the bill are hopeful that renegade food makers will soon be able to sell their goods without fear of getting busted. “This is the epicenter of the local food movement,” Oatfield says of the Bay Area, “and the time for this bill has really come.”
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