By Penny Leff (UC SAREP) and Peter Ruddock (COOK Alliance)
Approximately 100,000 Californians are cooking and selling meals from their home kitchens, providing healthy food for their neighbors and helping to support their families – and most of these small businesses are illegal. This estimate of the extent of the California informal home cooking industry comes from the COOK Alliance. The non-profit COOK Alliance has been, since 2017, the primary advocate for home cooks, supporting county advocacy efforts for legalizing MicroEnterprise Home Kitchen Operations (MEHKOs) and providing education for county staff and home cooks about MEHKOs. The University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (UC SAREP) partnered with the COOK Alliance in 2020 to learn how we might work together to legalize and support these enterprising cooks.
Legal, licensed MEHKOs are small businesses (only $50,000 gross sales per year allowed, adjusted annually for inflation) that involve home cooks preparing and selling a limited number of hot meals from their home kitchens. One of the intentions of MEHKOs is to create legal and regulated options for home cooks currently operating informal businesses, many of whom are immigrants and members of minority communities. Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations promise to be an effective path to entrepreneurship for limited-resource people.
The option for California counties (and the four cities that have their own Environmental Health Departments) to allow permitting of MEHKOs within their counties was approved by state passage of The Homemade Food Operations Act (AB-626) in 2018, amended by AB 377 in 2019. The program is regulated, and home kitchens are inspected, by the Environmental Health Department of the county that opts-in to AB-626.
However, the progress of most of California’s 58 counties opting in to AB626 moved at a snail’s pace. In 2020, only Riverside County was licensing home cooks to operate MEHKOs while the process slowed everywhere else. To raise energy and awareness and bring together cooks, advocates, county officials and staff and organizations providing marketing and other support to cooks, UC SAREP and the COOK Alliance together organized a gathering in October 2020. We called it Home Cooked 2020 Convening. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the convening was virtual. More than 100 people joined the Zoom conversation each day for two days, networking and learning from panels of cooks, advocates, county representatives and service providers.
Connections were made, energy was raised. As a result of participation in Home Cooked 2020, leaders of the UC Master Food Preserver program are strategizing with the COOK Alliance about establishing a program to provide needed training for home cooks. This new partnership will reach beyond MEHKO cooks and also include training for Cottage Food Operations, another form of home cooking businesses. The COOK Alliance is also expanding its focus to include advocating for revisions in cottage food operation regulations.
And the pace of county permitting is picking up. The COOK Alliance is hopeful that as many as twelve California counties to be licensing MEHKOs by the end of 2021.