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New California law kickstarts home-based food businesses

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(Read caption) A collection of cupcakes from Butch Bakery rests on a counter in New York City. California has joined more than 30 other states in allowing small businesses that make jams, jellies, pies, cookies, brownies, and other treats to operate out of the owners' homes instead of requiring a commercial kitchen.

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Late last month, the California State Assembly passed new legislation that would assure legal status for small-scale cottage industries that sell baked goods and other "non-potentially hazardous" food items produced in home kitchens.

We're talking homemade cookies and brownies, jams, jellies, fruit pies, mixed nuts, flavored vinegars, dried teas, roasted coffee, and other yummy stuff that's already legal in more than 30 other states including Oregon, Washington, Texas, and Michigan, which have similar legislation in place.

Freshly signed by the governor last Friday, the California Homemade Food Act (AB1616) clears the way for home cooks in the world's eighth-largest economy to make and sell a wide range of products without the need to invest in commercial kitchen space or comply with the zoning and regulatory measures that govern larger producers and producers of meat and dairy products, specifically omitted from this law.

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The stated goal of the legislation is to stimulate micro-enterprise development at the neighborhood level and "to connect food to local communities, small businesses, and environmental sustainability" while protecting consumers from artisan foods that contain potentially hazardous ingredients like primarily oils, meat, and dairy.

Elected officials are beginning to grasp the potential economic benefits of products and business practices that sharing economy leaders have been promoting for years. The Sustainable Economies Law Center, which worked on the bill with a coalition of local food advocates, provides regular updates on cottage food laws and other policies supporting micro-entrepreneurship and addressing the gray area that sharing-based services and current community needs have on our existing policies. 

Proponents of the legislation claim that existing zoning and food safety rules place an unnecessary burden on entry-level food industry entrepreneurs. To circumvent these barriers, forward-thinking foodies in one of the nation's most food-obsessed states have established shared community commercial kitchens and culinary incubators where small-scale producers can get a foothold in properly zoned and inspected workspaces. For example:

  • La Cocina, a San Francisco nonprofit established in 2005 "to cultivate low-income food entrepreneurs as they formalize and grow their businesses by providing affordable commercial kitchen space, industry-specific technical assistance, and access to market and capital opportunities."
  • Three Stone Hearth, a worker-owned cooperative that operates a community food production facility and teaching kitchen in Berkeley, Calif.
  • In the Kitchen, another community kitchen and culinary education center in the small town of Nevada City, Calif.
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The sharing economy also has supported small-scale food producers by enabling alternative forms of capital investment. Commercial loans are out of reach for most cottage food businesses, but crowdfunding platforms like Three Revolutions (focused specifically on food ventures), Lucky Ant, Indiegogo, SmallKnot, Kickstarter, and Spacehive have enabled neighborhood culinary entrepreneurs by allowing them to bypass the banking system and seek direct funding from individual supporters.

The California Homemade Food Act, which takes effect in January, allows these types of grass-roots culinary initiatives to divert some of their attention away from grappling with an old economy regulatory environment so they can focus more on putting people to work, strengthening communities, and putting good, local food on the table. Who can argue with that?

This article originally appeared at Shareable.net, a nonprofit online magazine that tells the story of how sharing can promote the common good.

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