- Author: Penny A. Leff
In Riverside County, 65 cooks have been approved by the county Environmental Health Department to cook and sell meals to their neighbors from their home kitchens. These innovative entrepreneurs are the first in California to take advantage of a new legal path that legitimizes and regulates what has long been part of an informal economy in many communities.
The Riverside County cooks are cooking as Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations (MEHKOs). 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.
The UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (UC SAREP), a statewide program of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, is working with the COOK Alliance, a coalition of home cooks and their supporters, to organize a virtual convening of home cooks, their advocates and county officials and staff. This convening will involve cooks sharing their experiences and discussions among county officials, regulators and advocates for cooks about the process of legalizing and operating MEHKOs in other counties.
The Home Cooked 2020 convening will be held via zoom on October 20 and 21, 2020, from 1 to 3 p.m. each day. Everyone is invited to join the discussion. Participation is free, but registration is required. Everyone who registers will be sent log-in information for the Zoom meeting. Register here: http://ucanr.edu/homecooked.
Denise Blackmon, proprietor of Soul Goodness, a licensed Riverside County MEHKO, says, "Being able to operate a home cooking business is especially helpful because I'm the single parent of a special needs son. This lets me work around his schedule when I am able and help support my family." Blackmon will be one of the speakers, on a panel with other home cooks, at the upcoming online event.
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. When permitted by a county government, MEHKOs are allowed to produce and sell limited quantities of home-cooked meals from a home kitchen in any zoning in the county, including in municipalities within the county. The program is regulated, and home kitchens are inspected by the Environmental Health Department of the county that opts-in to AB-626. As of October 2020, Riverside County is the only California county that has permitted MEHKOs, although Solano, Imperial, San Mateo, Santa Barbara and the City of Berkeley are all in the process of implementing regulations for MEHKOs. Several other counties are considering doing so. Home Cooked 2020 will feature county officials and staff discussing the issues and process for issuing licenses with cooks and their advocates. The program will include break-out rooms for cooks to talk with cooks, advocates to share strategies, county staff to talk with each other across county lines, and for those helping market and support home cooks to meet together.
The COOK Alliance, with a national membership of nearly 5,000 cooks and advocates, has been since 2018 the primary advocate for home cooks, supporting county advocacy efforts for opting into AB-626 and providing education for county staff and home cooks about MEHKOs.
During the COVID19 pandemic shut-down of restaurants and catering businesses across California, many professional chefs have found themselves out of work. Some of these chefs established informal pop-up cooking businesses to try to support themselves and provide healthy cooked food for their communities. Some of these unlicensed establishments, including the "Brokeass Cooks" from Oakland, were shut down by county health departments, generating stories in local newspapers and interest in their predicament. The COOK Alliance is working with some of these chefs to advocate for legal MEHKO operations in Alameda County and other counties where they have operated. Bilal Ali, one of the Brokeass cooks, will be talking on the panel of cooks at Home Cooked 2020.
This project is supported by a Public Impact Research Initiative grant from the UCD Public Scholarship and Engagement unit.