Bake Sale Bandits

Local Movement Fights for Cottage Food Bill.

Other states such as Tennessee have enacted "hybrid" cottage food bills that combine the Oregon and Michigan approaches. Home bakers and cooks are required to take the same sort of health courses required of certified kitchen managers, and strict rules about home kitchens are enforced by the health department. But a bake-sale exemption allows home cooks to produce nonhazardous foods six times a year without restrictions.

The proposed Texas Cottage Food Bill resembles the Tennessee approach. It requires home kitchens producing foods for sale to be licensed and operators to complete a course in food safety. The bill limits production to nonhazardous foods. Cottage food producers are restricted to direct consumer sales such as farmers markets or roadside stands and are barred from selling over the Internet, to food-service establishments or at wholesale. Each package of food produced in a Texas home kitchen would be required to bear a label with a list of ingredients, the name and address of the cottage food production operation and a warning reading: "Made in a home kitchen that has not been inspected by a state or local health authority."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the food culture war, the food safety crackdown continues. New rules restricting the operation of farmers markets and the vendors who sell their wares there are about to be introduced in Texas. Representatives from city health departments, the state Department of Agriculture and other "stakeholders" are attending a Farmers' Market Workgroup that's being held under the direction of The Texas Department of State Health Services.

Farm-made syrups have disappeared because of health regulations, while high-fructose corn syrup is subsidized.
Paul Howell
Farm-made syrups have disappeared because of health regulations, while high-fructose corn syrup is subsidized.
At the Henderson Heritage Syrup Festival, a mule turns an old-fashioned cane press to make cane juice.
Paul Howell
At the Henderson Heritage Syrup Festival, a mule turns an old-fashioned cane press to make cane juice.

The state health authorities are considering agriculture department and food industry recommendations that would put tougher restrictions on the sale of farm eggs and reclassify torn leaf lettuce as potentially hazardous. Strict enforcement of the direct-sale rules would forbid farmers market vendors to sell wholesale to restaurants. And there are lots of new rules concerning refrigeration, sanitation, drainage, hand sinks, licenses and permits. The local farmers market as we know it may not survive under the new rules.

Who wins the food culture war in this session of the Texas Legislature could decide where we shop and what we eat for decades to come.

Former Houston Chronicle food editor Janice Schindeler sells her pimento cheese, farm egg salad and other artisan products at farmers markets in Houston—she cooks everything in a certified kitchen. "It's not about health or food safety. I have been in restaurants with certified kitchens that are disgusting. This is about our food culture. Some of us got into this to opt out of the corporate world," Schindeler says. "But in order to use a certified kitchen, you have to get insurance. So to stand in a parking lot selling your jams and jellies, you need a million dollars in liability coverage."

The Texas Cottage Food Bill would restore some authenticity to the farmers markets, in Schindeler's view. "When you require food to be prepared in a certified kitchen, you end up with business owners having their staff do the cooking. To me, the farmers market should be about people making their food and then hauling it to the market and interacting with their customers—literally and actually standing behind the product they are selling."

But not all small producers at the farmers markets favor the cottage food bill. "It's easy to find a certified kitchen, and it's not that expensive," says Al Marcus of Grateful Bread in Houston. "If I have to use a certified kitchen, then so should everybody else."

Eric Uphoff is attending the University of North Texas in Denton. "I decided the best way to earn the money to pay for graduate school would be to start my own business selling custom vegan baked goods. There is a sizable vegan population here in town, but the little vegan store's selection of snacks are imported from bakeries in places like New York," he says. But after adding up the money it would cost to apply for the market vendor's license and city temporary food vendor license, acquire liability insurance and rent a certified kitchen, he realized he couldn't afford it. The cottage food law would allow him to pay for his education."Why," he asks, "am I not allowed to do that?"

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