California's Cottage Food


During last weekend's Echo Park Art Walk, I bought some goods from an illegal business.

They were being sold by two girls, roughly between the ages of ten and twelve, and went by the names "Lord and Lady Mustache," obvious aliases. (The pseudonyms were, perhaps, references to the large, curly mustaches they had on both their faces, which, looking back on it now, were most likely hand-drawn attempts to disguise their facial features.) They were accompanied by a five-year-old "Jedi Warrior" who wore a cape and threateningly held a lightsaber. He was, apparently, the muscle.

These felons were selling lemonade, lots of it, out of a crudely-built stand, 50 cents a pop. And I tell you, I'd buy it all over again if I had the chance.

Such is the current state of food sales in California.

If you make muffins for a bake sale, pop some popcorn to hawk outside of a movie theater, or brew up some tea for a few shiny nickels, you put yourself at risk of getting fined and shut down by the cops. (If you think that lemonade stand intro is a bit of a stretch, think again: In 2009, a code enforcement officer in Tulare shut down an 8-year-old girl's lemonade business because it lacked a "city-issued business license.") But that's all perhaps about to change.

With the California Homemade Food Act currently in Congress -- all of the tangled legalese of the bill is available here if you're the self-punishing type -- certain homemade foods will be allowed to be sold. According to LA Weekly, they "must be 'non-potentially hazardous food,' ... such as baked goods, jam, granola, popcorn, herb and tea blends, nut mixes and dried fruit." Before selling, producers must obtain permits and provide the various ingredients and expiration dates. So no, it's still not going to be as easy as setting up a stand and selling homemade cookies ... but at least we're getting somewhere.

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With the act's passage, California would become the 33rd state to allow cottage food to be sold. (Although there are some scruples to that total: According to HomeBasedBaking.com, there are really only 27 states that have completely A-OK laws -- Alabama, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York and Tennessee all technically have cottage food laws, but they have enough "major restrictions" to be considered decidedly in the second tier.) The other 27 states who allow cottage foods, in alphabetical order because that's how we do things around here, are (*deep breath*) Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Live in a state not listed above? Best keep those homemade brownie sales in the "speakeasy" realm.

The arguments for allowing cottage foods to be sold are obvious:
- A source of income to local residents
- Knowing where your food is coming from
- The satisfaction of not giving money to corporations
- General community-building

Meanwhile, the cons are essentially based around "who will make sure the kitchen is clean?" Which, sure, is a legitimate question. But the California bill handles that by including a provision allowing inspectors to check in on any cottage food operation if they get a consumer complaint. Which is all to say, there really is no legitimate argument against passing this. C'mon California lawmakers: Let's get this bill passed!

[Photo of lemonade stand by Flickr user stevendepolo, with some "scare-enhancing" visual editing on our part.]

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