The Homemade Food Act

The Homemade Food Act

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 29th September, 2012.

At the end of August, the Californian State Assembly passed the California Homemade Food Act, and it was signed into law by the Governor of California on 21st September. This law aims to support home-based and cottage food industries, by exempting them from onerous regulatory food safety, packaging  and planning requirements.

The types of foods that the Act is aimed at are what it terms ‘non-hazardous’ foods, which excludes dairy and meat products, but includes a wide list of preserved and value-added items, that you would typically associate with home kitchens: fruit pies; dried fruit and dried pasta; granola and cereals; honey; jams and preserves; vinegar and mustard; biscuits, breads and pastries; and roasted coffee and dried tea, amongst others.

Homemade Food  Act

Recognising the role that micro-food enterprises play in local economic development, as well as poverty and hunger prevention, the Act aims to create a permissive and enabling environment for such enterprises, rather than a prohibitive one. Local authorities are expressly forbidden by the legislation to prohibit a cottage food operation. Rather, they can either classify such operations as a permitted use of residential premises, or alternatively require such operations to apply for a permit to use a residence for that purpose, with any fees charged to be kept to a minimum.

The Act’s philosophy, and the societal ills it seeks to address, are set out clearly in Section 1. Foremost among those ills is the obesity epidemic, which as the Act notes ‘affects virtually all Californians’. Section 1(b)(3) notes that obesity-related diseases ‘are preventable and curable through lifestyle choices that include consumption of healthy foods’. Section 1(c) acknowledges the existence of so-called ‘food deserts’, which have condemned car-less low income communities to reliance on ‘expensive, fatty [and] processed foods’.

Section 1(d) recognises the existence in California of ‘a growingmovement to support community-based food production, [which] seeks to connect food to local communities, small businesses, and environmental sustainability’. Section 1(e) states that ‘[i]ncreased opportunities for entrepreneur development through microenterprises can help to supplement household incomes, prevent poverty and hunger, and strengthen local economies’.

These are the sorts of things that many of us in the local food movement have been saying for years. So it’s somewhat astonishing, and not a little gratifying, to see them now enshrined in legislation, in the world’s eighth-largest economy. And California is hardly alone in this initiative; if anything, it’s catching up. With this Act, California joins 32 other US states that have passed similar legislation.

Clearly in the US micro-food enterprises are now achieving the recognition and support they deserve, as powerful motors of economic and social development. There are a number of reasons for this.

In the first place, despite all the spin to the contrary, the US economy is very much mired in the stagnation of a ‘job-less’ recovery. Indicators of poverty and inequality continue to be broken, with a report earlier this month showing that a record 46.7 million Americans were receving food stamps (the US equivalent of emergency food vouchers in Australia), 50 million ran out of money to buy food at some point in 2011, and 17 million regularly ran short of food last year. These are shocking figures for the world’s richest economy. So it’s not surprising that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, with food-growing and associated micro-enterprises leading the way.

Secondly, there has been institutional support and resourcing of local food in the US for many years. The US Department of Agriculture has operated a multi-million dollar annual grants program that has seen the numbers of farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture initiatives rise exponentially since 1990.

Thirdly, farming, and urban agriculture in particular, is seen as the ‘new cool’ in the US. A friend just returning from there told me that being a farmer is now ‘one of the coolest things a young person can do’. And part of this wave of ‘cool’ is a new generation of enterpreneurs and new economy types who are putting in place the local markets and distribution networks to support the new generation of young farmers.

So when can we expect NSW to legislate for a Homemade Food Act? Not any time soon, if the lead being given by the Federal government in its National Food Plan is any guide.