Super slow food: the pros and cons of AB1616
BY JILLIAN LAUREL STEINBERGER
ILLUSTRATIONS BY HELEN KRAYENHOFF
Tiny is beautiful. You may have seen those efficient new tiny cars out on the road and read about tiny houses, 100 square feet where owners choose to live simply. Now, welcome to the new-old super-micro slow-food economy, where tiny enterprises that serve their community are conceived and carried out within that community. As folks join forces and create laws in favor of these small concepts, the effects add up to something much larger.
Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1616, the California Homemade Food Act, into law on September 21, 2012, and it went into effect on January 1, 2013. Now it is legal to produce some types of food for sale in a home kitchen. Next year, the California Neighborhood Food Act will likely become law, enabling citizens to legally sell produce grown on residential lots. The two laws will work together synergistically, such that tiny food artisans may source from tiny growers.
So forget 100 miles: it may be that we can get much of what we need from within 25 square miles or even within a few blocks of home. This means less impetus to blow up mountaintops or dig up tar sands so we can gas up our cars to drive to the grocery store for food that was trucked in from across the nation or the world.
HOW IT STARTED
Back in 2011, Mark Stambler of Los Feliz grew famous for the bread he produced in a wood-fired oven in his backyard. The Los Angeles Times published a big spread on him, and the Los Angeles County Public Health Department shut him down the next day. He began researching how to pursue his passion legally. In the process, he discovered the Sustainable Economies Law Center (theSELC.org) in Oakland, which together with the 300-member Los Angeles Bread Bakers began drafting text for a cottage food law similar to laws on the books in over 30 states. One day, out of the blue, he received a call from Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), a supporter of micro-enterprise, who wanted to help. Ultimately, Gatto introduced the law to the assembly, and AB 1616, as the new law is known, passed.
To date there are about 40 states in the U.S. with cottage food laws. California’s law is far from perfect. Yet it sets a precedent for a new set of principles regarding where, how, and from whom we get our food. Prior to AB 1616, it was illegal to sell food made in a home kitchen unless if fell under the narrow exemption for one-time charitable events. Christina Oatfield, policy director at the SELC says, “The fact that California passed such a law that allows as much as it does is a huge step. The law as it stands is quite groundbreaking in terms of how it creates a significant exception to many long-standing health and safety laws in California…”
PUBLIC SAFETY AND REGULATIONS
My call to the Alameda County Environmental Health Department reached a receptionist who expressed how staff there felt about the law. “Well, we’re concerned,” she said. “Who knows what people do in their home kitchen?! You have no idea what’s going on in someone’s home!” She sounded panicked. However, Jackie Greenwood of Alameda County’s Department of Environmental Health —who approves permits—is supportive and understands the strong demand for small-batch, artisanal, locally made food. More and more consumers want to buy directly from producers they can interact with. To them, the dangers of mainstream food seem far more alarming, what with unlabeled GMOs, chemical additives, high-fructose corn syrup, the decline of beneficial bacteria, and so on.
Even grocery stores are buying into cottage foods. New Leaf Community Market in Pleasanton sells the gluten-free, mostly vegan treats made by Livermore’s Teveh, Sweet Life (teveh.com). Brahm Ahmadi, CEO of West Oakland’s People’s Community Market, slated to open in 2014, says, “We’d love to carry cottage food products. That kind of offering will fit great with our neighborhood brand and local focus. We’d be especially interested in products that are made by food entrepreneurs in the West Oakland community or that appeal to the main ethnic groups here.”
The Ecological Farming Association (eco-farm.org) is also optimistic. Says executive director Ken Dickerson, “AB 1616 is a great first step in supporting California farmers and small, homespun food companies to legally prepare foods for sale to the public. The law provides for the health and safety of those cottage food operations, while removing prohibitive regulatory barriers to their operations, regulations that were originally designed for much larger commercial food operations.”
Nonetheless, plenty of reasonable people have questions about food safety when they hear about this bill. Mishandled foods can be dangerous. But nervous consumers may relax: Cottage food operators (CFOs) jump through regulatory hoops.
There are two types of operators. Class A operators register with the county and may only sell directly to customers from their kitchens or via delivery, through community-supported agriculture subscriptions, or at farmstands, farmers’ markets, or events like bake sales and fairs. According to the SELC, the letter of the law states that they may sell anywhere in California, although many counties require that CFOs sell only within the county, and items may never be mailed. Class B operators apply for a permit and submit to annual inspections. In addition to direct sales, they may engage in indirect sales through retail stores and restaurants within the county. They may also sell to third parties in other counties after receiving permission. Operators cannot sell across state lines. All CFOs must complete a food processor training course, and they must comply with labeling regulations. For instance, labels must say “Made in a Home Kitchen” on the primary display panel, with the permit number and ingredients in descending weight.
In fact, protecting public health is a code of honor for many CFOs. “We have to gain consumer trust, so anyone serious about running a food business in their home will hold their kitchen to a high standard,” says Ren Buenviaje of Renby’s Sugar Shoppe (renbys.com) in Emeryville.
A case in point: Brentwood’s Tammy Torres of Majestic Desserts (majesticdessert.com) is certified above and beyond AB 1616’s requirements. “They only require a food handlers card,” she explains. “Instead, I took a safety manager’s certificate, which is required for restaurants and food establishments.”
Concord resident Victoria Miller of Brown Dog Mustard (browndogmustard.com) also holds herself to a higher standard, canning her mustards in a hot water bath as if they were jams or preserves, even though that is not necessary for mustards, which are pH stable. She also uses a baby gate across the kitchen door to comply with the requirement to bar entrance to the kitchen during production.
Martinez-based farm worker Helena Tuman produces “Hella good jams, jellies, sauces & spreads using hella local, seasonal & organic produce” through her CFO, Jam On! To ensure safety, she explains, “I use fruit within a three-day-max period of purchasing it., and I am diligent about sanitizing jars, lids, and equipment.”
Says Iso Rabins, founder of the Underground Market, Forage Kitchen, and ForageSF, “What this law means to prove, and what we proved with the Underground Market, is that homemade food is just as safe (and often more so) than industrially produced food: that stainless-steel countertops are not what protect people, but the care and attention of the producer.”
Allowed cottage foods include only low-risk “non-potentially hazardous” items that don’t include cream or meat fillings. Essentially, these are shelf-stable foods that do not need refrigeration. But does that mean they’re healthy? Maybe not. Despite the inspirational language that introduces the bill in section one, it’s not a health-food initiative.
The bill reads like a food activist’s manifesto (see bottom of page), and yet more than half of the items on the “approved foods list” are products that could be characterized as desserts or sweet snacks. How will these hydrate food deserts? In fact, cottage food laws throughout the U.S. tend to favor bakers and are frequently referred to as Baker’s Bills. The explanation is that baked goods present little risk of food-borne illness.
It is true that CFOs create intensely personal products, often with love, which lends authenticity. And while many use white sugar and flour, it is unlikely they will use the chemicals that once gave Twinkies and Ho Hos their “in perpetuity” shelf life. Jasmine Shepard of Oakland’s Engineered Cupcake (engineeredcupcake.com) attests, “All of our cupcakes, muffins, cookies, and the like are made without stabilizers, false sugars, and other ‘miracles of science.’” And, many cottage bakers are intentionally health conscious. For example, Oakland’s Triple Heart Bakery (tripleheartbakery.com) specializes in food-sensitive baking. Products are gluten-free, soy-free, organic, use alternative sugars and ingredients like quinoa and coconut oil, and are often vegan. Owner Sara LeeKing is specifically interested in promoting health in low-income communities. “Bringing cottage foods to neighborhoods where liquor stores are the closest ‘markets’ is a wonderful gift to the community,” she says.
Further, there are “superfoods” on the list such as honey (yes, it appears it’s legal for beekeepers to sell honey!), fruits, nuts, chocolate, and spice mixes. Michael Assayag, a UC Berkeley political science student who owns Sprouted Minds (sproutedmindsraw.com), makes a high-performance superfoods bar with ingredients like organic dates, organic figs, organic sprouted brown rice protein, organic coconut, organic sprouted quinoa, spirulina, chlorella, organic bee pollen, organic maca powder, organic tulsi, and Himalayan pink salt.
Still, the word “vegetable” doesn’t make it onto the list at all. Some might consider this a problem.
APPROVED FOOD PRODUCTS LIST
Baked goods, without cream, custard, or meat fillings, such as breads, biscuits, churros, cookies, pastries, and tortillas
Candy, such as brittle and toffee
Chocolate-covered nonperishable foods, such as nuts and dried fruits
Dry baking mixes
Fruit pies, fruit empanadas, and fruit tamales
Granola, cereals, and trail mixes
Herb blends and dried mole paste
Honey and sweet sorghum syrup
Jams, jellies, preserves, and fruit butter that comply with the standard described in Part 150 of Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations
Nut mixes and nut butters
Vinegar and mustard
Roasted coffee and dried tea
Waffle cones and pizelles
Pictured below is a celebratory cake that Tammy Torres of Majestic Desserts of Brentwood created on passage of AB 1616.
(Photo by Tammy Torres)
SO WHERE ARE THE PICKLES?
Some might say, “Where’s the beef,” but it’s krauts and pickles that are at issue. Ferments are one of our most popular and healthy food trends, and some California counties are permitting pickled vegetables with a pH level of 4.6 or below. However, the approved foods list does not include pickles, and certainly does not list the word “ferment.” This lack of clarity discourages many who might enter food production as a CFO.
Carin Fortin, a Swiss native and former Oakland resident who studied permaculture at Merritt College, is today a biodynamic farmer in Bonny Doon (blossomsbest.com). She teaches classes on the cottage food law through the Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets and the Reskilling Expo (reskillingexpo.org). Most of the products she makes and would like to market—pestos, kefirs, sauerkrauts, sodas, bitters, and salves—are not legal within AB 1616. She says, “It is well intended, but way too restrictive for a lot of upstart food producers.”
In business since 2010, Emmy Moore of San Francisco’s Emmy’s Pickles (emmyspicklesandjams.com) sells in the East Bay at the Local Butcher Shop, Sacred Wheel, Rockridge Market Hall, and other gourmet stores. She says, “Unfortunately for me, pickles do not fall under the cottage food law umbrella.” Well, maybe they do, but…it’s not clear, especially for a business focused on pickles.
There is definitely not room for innovative products like Creative Cultures’ (creativeculturesfoods.com) line of probiotic drinks, such as its kvass, a fermented beet juice from Ukraine that is a potent digestive aid and liver cleanser. Operator Kelly Dearie sells to stores like Berkeley Bowl and Rainbow Grocery, but she has had to lease a commercial kitchen, since the cottage foods approach was never even remotely an option.
“A number of farmers say, ‘This law can’t help me,’” recounts Frederick Smith, principal of Tastebud Consulting who has given talks on AB 1616 around Northern California. “They would like to be able to can and preserve and sell their vegetables.” Up to one-third of food that is grown goes to compost, he notes. “Canning and preserving is the best way to solve that problem.” He adds, “Fermentation has been around since the beginning of agriculture. A concern is that not everyone knows how to do it correctly. There can be a written standard for how people can legally ferment as part of the homemade food guidelines.”
“It’s all about personal responsibility,” says Carin Fortin. “I can smoke a cigarette at the gas station and blow it up, but I don’t. It’s the same with food.” Tell that to the health inspector!
JUMP-STARTING A MICRO-ECONOMY
CFOs can skip the expensive step of leasing certified commercial kitchens, which has barred many would-be entrepreneurs from entering the market. But gross annual sales are capped at $35,000, rising to $50,000 in 2015. Many people cannot afford to undertake an endeavor that seems to offer so little financial opportunity.
While the SELC’s Christina Oatfield would rather there were no income caps, she asserts that AB 1616 opens up economic opportunities for many, such as small-scale farmers, stay-at-home parents, refugees of the economic crisis looking for creative ways to generate income, working professionals who want to own and operate their own business, passionate cooks, and others. “The hopeful cottage food producers I’ve spoken to during the past year come from many different cultural and economic backgrounds. They vary in age and occupations greatly as well.”
Aaron Sachs, a professor at St. Mary’s College who teaches service-learning classes on food justice in partnership with People’s Grocery in West Oakland, says, “$50,000 a year is around 55 percent of the area median income for a family of four in Oakland which, while technically above the poverty line, still qualifies as low or very low income. This isn’t a good living wage in the Bay Area.” Yet he notes that there are many families for whom $50,000, or even $35,000, is significantly more than what they currently earn, or would greatly supplement their income. “For them, any additional monthly income is great, and this does represent a legal means of bringing in additional income.”
And, notes Frederick Smith, “For people on a fixed income, such as elderly people on social security, an extra $10,000 or $20,000 here or there doesn’t hurt. And many farms will appreciate an extra $50,000 for value-added products from leftover produce.”
Jam On!’s Helena Tuman, who sources fruit from the farm where she works, explains, “I decided to become a CFO because I want to start my own farm, and every penny helps!”
THE HOMEMADE FOOD MARKET
“It’s been amazing to see so many people jump into starting their own business and to see how far these entrepreneurs have come in just a few months. Supporting CFOs is a strong move toward localizing the food system, growing the local economy, and being better connected with your food,” says Alex Stone, who makes rustic whole-wheat olive oil crackers with sea salt.
Last March, she founded the Bay Area Homemade Food Market, which is now popping up monthly at the Firehouse Art Collective Hangar in Berkeley near Ashby BART. (Frequency and location may change.) There are currently about 15 regular vendors with more joining every month. The entrance fee is a $5 donation, with no one turned away for lack of funds.
Says Alex, “Initially, there weren’t any platforms for cottage operators to sell their goods so I wanted to create that space.” The market allows CFOs to sell goods, connect with each other, grow their customer base and publicize their businesses to the community.
You can find Alex on Facebook at Girl Alex Productions and the market at bayareahomemademarket.com.
Left: Market organizer and home baker, Alex Stone. (Photos by Cameron Dutro)
Despite the income limits, starting a CFO can be a shrewd business move. Says Iso Rabins, “What is great about the cottage food law is that it gives people a chance to try out their ideas before investing thousands of dollars in up-front permit and rental costs. Honestly this is the way most people start businesses already, this law just brings it into the light.”
It’s just right for Brown Dog Mustard’s Victoria Miller, who says, “With a cottage food permit I can do R&D for a year and see what sells, what doesn’t, and then feel confident that when I do move into a commercial kitchen, I have a product that has potential.”
Savvy CFOs can also leverage one business into another. Says Tammy Torres, “I started a baking supply business in 2009 because I could not find quality ingredients and supplies for my own personal baking. Since opening Majestic Desserts in 2013, I now run two businesses from my home.”
The business model is also perfect for part-timers. Kianna Gendotti, a music student who runs Kiki’s Cupcakery from her mom’s home in Discovery Bay says, “I’m keeping my doors open for when I finally discover which route to take. It could be trying to go big with this baking thing, or it could be going big in the opera world. I plan to keep my licensing current so that I can still fulfill orders for special occasions when I can fit it into my schedule.”
North Oakland food justice collective Phat Beets Produce has formally launched a Community Healthy Food Businesses Incubation Kitchen (phatbeetsproduce.org/incubator-kitchen) to develop local talent. The flexible program incubates three (or so) trainees at a time for one to six months by providing business and marketing education, support while navigating licensing requirements, and channels for selling product, such as through the collective’s Beet Box CSA. “We are always looking to connect with folks interested in our program and will accept people on a rolling basis provided there is space,” says coordinator Susan Park. “If the trainee’s food product can fall under the cottage food law, we will help him or her figure out how to be licensed as such.”
Newlyweds Jules and Jess fell in love while baking apple pies for a nonprofit fund-raiser. The rest is history.
The resourceful proprietors of Two Mammas Vegan Kitchen were the first permitted CFOs in Oakland, and have developed a loyal customer base. They attended Women’s Initiative (womensinitiative.org), where they wrote a business plan and pulled off a successful launch. Through their Bake Box, they sell baked goods to subscribers on a weekly basis. Now they have expanded to festivals and pop-ups like First Fridays and Bites off Broadway, serving Jess’s excellent focaccia, whole-wheat walnut flax, and other breads as part of hot, ready-to-eat meals, as well as desserts. To buy new equipment (a standing mixer, tent, grill, etc.) and additional permits to keep legal, they raised money through gofundme.com, surpassing their $2,000 goal handily in two weeks. The popularity of their “kid-friendly” food continues to grow, and by early September they will leap to a brick-and-mortar restaurant on MacArthur near 39th Street in Oakland’s Laurel District. And all within six months!
Above right: Jess (front) serves up a hot meal at Bites Off Broadway as Jules readies another. (Photo by Jillian Steinburger)
Cottage food production can help re-create local foodsheds by encouraging personal connections. Biodynamic farmer Carin Fortin says, “Nowadays, our economy is based on the disconnection of consumer and producer. It is easy to sell a bad product to someone on the other end of the planet you do not feel connected to nor responsible for.”
Tastebud Consulting’s Fred Smith explains that after World War II, we started separating business and residential districts based on a car economy. Before that, people shared resources in small communities. “There was an informal economy with a lot of informal entrepreneurship. We need to come back to those economic relationships. You can’t do that until you change zoning laws. The cottage food law is one way of doing that.”
Cottage food production may also strengthen families. A parent working from home is more available to kids, and may even bolster practical education by modeling how to run a business. Says Tammy Torres, “My daughter named my company because she thinks my desserts are magical and grand so she came up with the word ‘Majestic.’” Now there’s a sweet treat for a parent who bakes. •
Wondering How to Finance Your Food Business?
If the California Homemade Food Act is inspiring you to cook up your own business, you’ll find a new primer by Elizabeth Ü, the executive director of Finance for Food, indispensable to your efforts. Raising Dough: the Complete Guide to Financing a Socially Responsible Food Business (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013), is a resource-rich guide for start-up food entrepreneurs, with a particular focus on identifying a viable financing strategy for your business aligned with your values and mission. Her descriptions and explanations are easy to understand and she reviews various funding options from grant and loan programs to popular crowdfunding models.
Visit theSELC.org for information about the Homemade Food Act and the Neighborhood Food Act.
Get cottage food law specifics at the
California Department of Public Health:
Bakers will want to visit HomebasedBaking.com.
WHERE TO GO FOR A PERMIT
Alameda County Environmental Health: acgov.org/aceh
Contra Costa Environmental Health Division:
“It’s difficult to find information about cottage food operations or laws, and online tools for the cottage food industry don’t really exist yet,” says David Crabill, who with partner Cameron Dutro has created two useful and functional websites to build awareness of cottage foods and support operators:
CottageFoods.org goes broad and deep to aggregate information on cottage food laws throughout the U.S. It covers topics like labeling requirements, fees, allowed sales venues, and so forth, which vary widely by state, and offers community forums and a nationwide directory where CFOs can list their businesses for free.
Forrager.com is an online marketplace exclusively for cottage food. It is like an Etsy with cottage-food-specific tools, like a nutrition facts builder. In a matter of minutes, sellers can create products, list ingredients, specify what types of fulfillment they offer (delivery, pickup, etc.), and manage orders. Buyers can easily find local sellers and order their products.
Dutro lists a few benefits of creating and consuming cottage foods:
Know where your food comes from and who makes it.
Support the members of your community directly.
Eat healthier food.
Start and manage a (food) business.
Supplement your income.
Potentially create jobs in your community.
A FOOD ACTIVIST’S MANIFESTO?