Local food isn’t as much about geography as it is about relationships. By shortening the supply chain and distributing their products more directly to consumers, food producers and processors are making food less anonymous while building both financial and social capital in their communities. One group in particular can be singled out for its efforts in this space: the cottage food sector.
Cottage industries are typically thought of as businesses carried out in homes. They are small in scale, have very few employees, and require little start-up capital. The cottage food industry is no different. Chefs, bakers, and farmers’ market vendors prepare foods in their homes and in farm kitchens to sell directly to consumers. However, some policy barriers have stymied the industry’s expansion.
Today’s agrifood sector is in many ways a one-size-fits-all world, and so are its policies. Traditionally, state laws have required all food producers to process foods in licensed commercial kitchens, regardless of the type of food or size of business. The primary purpose of such regulation is to decrease the public’s risk of foodborne illness. This is fine for the typical high-revenue, established business, but it can create a substantial obstacle for small processors just getting started. Licensed commercial kitchens can be prohibitively expensive to construct. Although renting time in a kitchen is an option for some producers, it can also be limiting due to cost or lack of availability. This creates a high barrier to entry for food entrepreneurs trying to enter into the marketplace. As a response, cottage food bills have been introduced across the country.
Cottage food laws allow small-scale producers to use non-licensed kitchens to process and sell certain food products. Allowing for processing in-home can take advantage of resources already in place and allow food entrepreneurs to test out techniques and products before making a large financial commitment. To date, versions of cottage food legislation have diffused into over 40 states. In many of the remaining states, efforts are underway to enact similar legislation.
“Pickle Bills,” as they are sometimes known, can help jump-start businesses while also strengthening local economies and communities. Processing food creates a value-added product that enables producers to earn higher margins than those available through the sale of raw agricultural products. This can keep more money in a community, strengthen local food systems, and create additional opportunities for consumers to connect with local food producers. Although the laws vary across the US, they generally allow for the sale of non-potentially hazardous, processed foods at producer-to-consumer venues such as farmers’ markets. These foods are baked, canned, pickled, dried, or candied and include products such as honey, jams and jellies, baked goods, spices, and teas.
Passing a cottage food law is not always a smooth process. Opponents to the laws often argue that lack of regulation can lead to an increase in foodborne illnesses. Established businesses protest that the laws unfairly subsidize a new industry. However, time and again the cottage food industry has proven its ability to pass legislation. This is often due to the industry’s ability to work across sectors and build the case for economic development. As other food system initiatives break the mold of modern-day agribusiness, integration of similar strategies can help these efforts to revitalize local economies and provide improved access to healthy food options.
Vanessa Crossgrove Fry serves as adjunct faculty at Presidio Graduate School and as Project Coordinator with the Public Policy Research Center at Boise State University, where she is pursuing a PhD. Her passion for sustainability and justice focus her research on food systems and local economies.
LESSONS FROM THE COTTAGE INDUSTRY FOR OTHER LOCAL FOOD INITIATIVES
USE A MULTI-SECTOR APPROACH
Food system innovations in the form of policies, distribution strategies, and farmland preservation have been enacted in response to consumers’ demand for local and regional food products. Successful efforts have many attributes, but those with a multi-sector approach often thrive. Coalitions to pass cottage food legislation have included producers, processors, elected officials, consumers, health department officials, food banks, state departments of agriculture, and many others.
THE CASE FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Cottage food laws are all about scale. They are intended to support small startups by lowering the barriers to entry for food entrepreneurs. This is, in essence, a tool for economic development. Many entering into the cottage food industry do so with the intention to remain small, simply earning additional income on top of their primary employment. However, a business may also be able to scale up. Real Pickles, a worker-owned cooperative in Greenfield, MA, began with its founder home-pickling local foods for off-season consumption. Now the company pickles over 100,000 pounds of local, organic vegetables and distributes them throughout the Northeast.