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Stambler (Associated Press/Photo by Damian Dovarganes)

Wheat watchers

Lifestyle | Regulators and inspectors discourage cottage food producers, but local food activists are fighting back

Issue: "Return to war?," May 5, 2012

Mark Stambler is a serious bread baker. His sourdough and rye loaves are leavened from a homemade wild yeast starter, kneaded with hand-ground wheat, and baked in a hand-built 6-foot-tall backyard oven.

The Los Feliz, Calif., resident has been an at-home boulanger for over 40 years, baking rustic breads good enough to sell. And that's what Stambler did for about a year when two local specialty shops agreed to sell his bread.

But what seemed like an innocuous attempt to transition his hobby into a 60-loaves-per-week business turned out to be illegal. According to state and county law, all food producers needed to have permits and work in licensed kitchens.

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The day after the food section of the Los Angeles Times ran a profile of Stambler's semi-bakeshop, county health inspectors showed up to shut down the operation at both locations that sold his bread.

Stambler was frustrated. He couldn't afford the costly permits and certifications needed to sell his bread legally. For seven months, he followed a rabbit trail of complex and sometimes conflicting rules between different health department branches.

Stambler realized it would be impossible for him to sell his bread without changing the law: "I didn't want a short-term solution. I needed something more long term. I thought it was absurd that people could not sell what they make at home. It just makes no sense."

Stambler discovered that 31 states in the United States had passed cottage food laws that allowed the sale of certain products prepared in home kitchens. From there he connected with the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), an organization already working to pass a cottage food law in California.

Then California State Assemblyman Mike Gatto called Stambler and offered to help write the law. On Feb. 8 Gatto introduced the California Homemade Food Act (AB 1616), a bill that would legalize small-scale sales of non-hazardous homemade edibles like jam, granola, candy, dried fruit, and non-dairy-based baked goods.

The bill is going through committee. Meanwhile, SELC is talking with representatives of local health departments about creating a tiered system with stricter regulations for kitchens with larger productions. It's a long process, but SELC food policy director Christina Oatfield hopes the new law will be enacted by the end of this year: "It seems to be gaining a lot of support and popularity. No opposition has been raised publicly yet."

She says this public support reflects the interest of many Americans in a localized food system, as evidenced from the increasing popularity of farmers markets across the nation: "More people are understanding the value of localizing their food economy and having more direct purchasing relationship with the people who grow and process our food."

The main concern of health regulators is proper sanitation in home kitchens. Other concerns include the unfair competition cottage food producers might bring to businesses that have followed all the costly and time-consuming legal procedures.

But Molly (Mo) Miller-Davidson, co-owner of Lisa & Mo, Inc., a gluten-free start-up bakery that bakes in a commercial kitchen, welcomes new small businesses like Stambler's: "This could be a huge boost to our economy and provide countless jobs." She says it's "incredibly expensive" to start a food or beverage business in California. It cost her company between $2,000 and $4,000 just to cover the multiple licenses and permits mandated by the state.

Her company also pays $25 per hour to rent a licensed kitchen at Chef's Center of California in Pasadena. She says many people who want to produce food or beverages can't afford those costs: "People who start companies are creative people ... who don't have much financial savvy. So if the laws could be streamlined to encourage start-ups and help them avoid too much red tape, we'll all win."

Despite the long campaign, Stambler still wants to start his own bakery. He believes the law will help not only him, but the many other cottage food producers who want to turn their hobby into a livelihood without breaking the law: "There's a lot of people throughout the state who are in the similar position as me. ... They make food, just because they love doing it."

-Sophia Lee writes for worldcalifornia.com

Dangerous safety laws

Many cities have tried to regulate the feeding of homeless people. Last month three cities-New York, Houston, and Philadelphia-added food safety and nutrition to their lists of concerns.

New York City began enforcing a regulation banning city homeless shelters from accepting donated food because they couldn't determine whether the food met the city's strict nutrition standards for fat, salt, and fiber. The story came to light when a shelter turned away the donation of bagels and other food items from one of the city's Orthodox synagogues. Volunteer Glenn Richter had collected and donated more than two tons of food over the past 20 years.

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