The California Homemade Food Act: The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread, Is Legally Selling Homemade Bread

Jamie Anneflickr/via
Jamie Anne's Homemade Brioche

When I was six, I baked cookies and tried to sell them with my neighbor Justine from a folding table in the middle of our block. Most of the neighbors smiled as they walked by, some even bought a cookie, but one neighbor surprised us by saying that what we were doing was illegal. More surprising to me (than a person who scolds a six year old) was that the neighbor was correct. In California, and eighteen other states, it is illegal to sell homemade baked goods to a neighbor or even a friend — unless that person’s home happens to have a certified commercial kitchen or if the bake sale is for a charity. But as of a month ago, there was some hope that things may start to change in California, as Assemblyman Gatto (D-Los Angeles) introduced AB1616, aka the California Homemade Food Act, into the State Assembly.

The Act took California one step closer to joining the 31 other states in the U.S. that have cottage food laws, or Baker’s Bills, which permit people to sell certain foods made in home kitchens. More than 50% of these state laws were passed since 2007, during the recent recession. If passed, the Act would finally allow California residents to legally sell bread, cookies, cakes, and other non-hazardous food items that do not require refrigeration such as honey, jam, candy, tea and coffee. Other state acts prohibit selling anything perishable, especially items with uncooked dairy and meat.

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Billie's Cookies

The recent economic downturn and people's increased interest in eating artisanal, local and unique foods has fueled many of the cottage food laws. The laws allow aspiring chefs or casual cooks trying to supplement their income the opportunity to develop a customer base and to save up before investing a lot of money into building a commercial kitchen or a brick and mortar restaurant. Removing the financial and logistical barriers of having a commercial kitchen makes starting a food business accessible for more people. In some regions renting a commercial kitchen can cost $75 an hour. The cottage laws also benefit consumers, especially those in underserved communities, who often lack access to freshly prepared foods.

The instigator for the California Homemade Food Act, was Mark Stambler, who was baking handcrafted bread in his backyard wood burning oven until the LA Times ran a story on him. The news caught the attention of the LA County Health Department who prevented Mark from continuing to sell his breads directly from his home to local shops out of concern for food safety and zoning. Before Stambler was stopped by health inspectors, he would sell the fifty loaves he baked each week to the Silver Lake Cheese Shop. He currently sells a dozen loaves a week through a community-supported agriculture group.

Assemblyman Gatto read about Stambler's plight in the news and decided to help fix the problem. The California Homemade Food Act is an outgrowth of their collaborative efforts, as well as those of the Sustainable Economies Law Center. Food activists, such as the LA Bread Bakers, helped draft the legislation and will help to galvanize community support for the Act over the next months. If all goes well, Governor Brown will sign the Act into law by the end of summer.

In the past, one way around the regulation was to hold food swaps which were considered permissible because no money was being exchanged. Home chefs have gathered in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Austin, Seattle and Detroit to exchange homemade foods with each other at these swaps. These swaps have increased in popularity in recent years.

California should join the other states who have passed food cottage laws. Yes, there are food concerns in a home kitchen, such as people cooking with clean hands or wearing hair nets, and people not cooking with pets or sick children around. But beyond the occasional inspection, these concerns are still valid for commercial kitchens as well. The benefits during these tough economic times of incubating businesses and allowing people to work out of their homes, would strengthen communities and build stronger relationships between neighbors. Instead of putting the responsibility for feeding ourselves in the hands of giant corporations, we would be trusting other people in our community who may be more interested in our health and safety. Or we may just be able to buy a cookie from the kid on our street, without doing something illegal.

You can help by signing the petition on the Cottage Food Law website.

Tags: California | Food Safety | Los Angeles