Proposed California law would allow for the sale of non-perishable homemade foods
When Kathryn Lukas started her artisan organic sauerkraut business, Farmhouse Culture, the local worked out of a friend’s cellar. She couldn’t afford rent on the commercial kitchen required under California's food safety regulatory laws, but because she had previously owned a restaurant she knew enough to craft her own commercial kitchen.
However, she soon realized that it would be at least a year before the permitting process for her kitchen was complete. As soon as she could, Lukas purchased an existing 2,500-square-foot commercial kitchen. She couldn’t quite afford the kitchen, so she rented it out hourly to other small-scale food producers in Santa Cruz.
“I think what’s happening, to be perfectly honest, is a lot of people start off kind of illegally anyway,” she says, noting that she sold her sauerkraut at small farmers’ markets before she officially had a legal kitchen.
Lukas’ Farmhouse Culture business is now thriving, but she realizes that many people undergo struggles like her own before they are able to launch their small-scale local food businesses. This is why she says she supports the California Homemade Food Act proposed by Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) in February.
The California Homemade Food Act, AB 1616, would allow people to prepare certain non-perishable foods in their own kitchens and sell them on a small scale, typically directly to consumers and at farmers’ markets.
Assemblyman Gatto, who introduced the bill, says he has always been a supporter of locally grown and produced food. He first decided to push for the bill when he read an article about an artisan bread maker, Mark Stambler, who turned out to be a constituent of his.
“He was talking about how many problems he was having just being able to sell his bread,” says Gatto. “I called him up and I heard his story about what was happening with the local county health departments. The staff there was really giving him a hard time. They were giving him some very paradoxical and nonsensical orders to comply with. So I just thought, ‘the state ought to step in. We ough to regulate this on the state level and sort of standardize state laws so that the different county inspectors have better guidelines to apply.’”
Thirty-one states already have laws in place that are similar to the proposed California Homemade Food Act. These laws are often referred to as “cottage food” laws.
Peter Ruddock, communications director for the local chapter of the international nonprofit Slow Food, says the Santa Cruz branch solidly supports the introduction of a cottage food law to California.
“We need to make it easier for people to safely produce good, local food,” he says. “We don’t want a Wild West situation where anybody can do anything they want because then we’d have food safety issues. But it should be easier for local food producers to get started.”
Ruddock notes that the proposed cottage food law takes food safety into account, as it would support only non-perishable food items.
The proposed law would allow for the small-scale sale of homemade baked goods with no cream or meat fillings, jams and jellies, granola and other dry cereal, popcorn, waffle cones, nut mixes, chocolate-covered non-perishables (such as nuts and dried fruit), roasted coffee, dry baking mixes, herb blends, dried tea, dried fruit, honey and candy.
The California Homemade Food Act has secured a bipartisan list of co-authors who have signed the bill, including assemblymembers Jared Huffman, Bob Wieckowski, V. Manuel Pérez and Allan Mansoor, as well as Sen. Mark DeSaulnier.
Christina Oatfield, food policy director for the Sustainable Economies Law Center, helped Assemblyman Gatto and legislative council in Sacramento craft the original draft of the California Homemade Food Act.
“We were inspired by some of the existing laws, like Ohio, [which] has one of the longer standing cottage food laws,” she says. “A lot of the laws are there for good reason and with the intention to protect consumers, but they’re very much geared towards large-scale food operations.”
Oatfield adds that the proposed act falls in line with the growing movement to localize food systems and stimulate small-scale food production.
“I think the laws weren’t really written bearing in mind the value of homemade food and microenterprises that aren’t feeding lots and lots of people, and don’t have lots of people handling the food,” she says. “Consumers are increasingly interested in supporting small businesses, local businesses, eating local, knowing the person who makes the food—things like that.”
Oatfield says there has been no vocal opposition of the bill thus far, however certain aspects of the bill are undergoing an amendment process.
AB 1616 will be voted on in the state Assemby Health Committee on April 10.
“I think what we have right now is a really good start,” says Oatfield, “and I am hoping we’ll see something similar passed in the legislature this year.”