The pandemic inspired a variety of creative, temporary responses to community needs that have grown in momentum to the point of becoming permanent solutions. Home kitchens sprang up across the country as individuals turned their own kitchens into restaurants, offering the sale of home-cooked goods. This new, innovative idea has continued to gain popularity even after the early months of the pandemic. Its continued growth stands out as an exemplary partnership between local governments and community members in 2021.
But what is a home kitchen? What role does local government play in supporting this concept? How does it benefit the community?
Let’s take a look at an example of a successful home kitchen initiative in California for answers. Home kitchens are classified as Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations (MEHKOs). Once recognized by the appropriate government authorities, a resident can store, handle, prepare, and serve food to the public, as allowed by state law, similar to a restaurant.
In California, the idea was first approved in 2018 when then-Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill (AB) 626, amending the California Health and Safety Code. The legislation took effect on January 1, 2019, giving localities full discretion to authorize the MEHKOs in their jurisdiction. In other words, MEHKOs fell under the jurisdiction of local governments.
MEHKOs are successful when local governments and communities work in tandem to find effective solutions. For example, Riverside County was the first locality to approve MEHKOs, establishing an ordinance in June of 2019. Under the ordinance, the Riverside County Department of Environmental Health “shall inspect MHKO upon the initial application, as well as on an annual basis, or due to a consumer complaint, if there is reason to suspect that unsafe food has been produced, or there is another violation.” As of December 2021, Riverside County now has over 100 approved MEHKOs.
This gradual increase in government support has been showcased in localities throughout California. On September 15, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to permit MEHKOS and the sale of food from one’s own kitchen in residential neighborhoods. The Department of Environmental Health and Quality has also been directed to conduct community outreach, provide opportunities for public input, and implement a public education program following the formal adoption of a MEHKO ordinance.
The regulations allow for “a maximum of thirty meals per day, or sixty meals throughout a week.” Sales for these operations are capped at $50,000 annually per AB 626, and individuals would have the options of at-home pick-up, delivery, or dining in. Similar to Riverside, San Diego’s forthcoming ordinance will allow for county inspections of food safety and quality, addressing potential concerns in the community.
In Northern California, Alameda County has also followed suit, permitting the home-based restaurants while allowing health departments to properly monitor the operations. Under the County’s approval, the City of Oakland is now in the process of developing a new commercial kitchen using $100,000 in equipment donated by Google. The kitchen will be an addition to the Arroyo Viejo Recreation Center in East Oakland, and can be used by home cooks as an alternative to their own home kitchens. The goal of the program is to increase food availability for community members, while also providing an alternative to unsanctioned enterprises that have operated under the radar.
“The East Oakland neighborhood surrounding the Arroyo Viejo Recreation Center is a food desert where our residents do not have access to healthy and nutritious food,” explains Oakland City Councilmember Loren Taylor. “A number of businesses have been operating underground without appropriate licensing across the city of Oakland.”
In addition to working towards alleviating food insecurity, MEHKOs provide community members another way to earn income during a financially turbulent time. This becomes especially relevant during this holiday season when inflation is at a record high and families are struggling.
The approval of MEHKOs shows the responsiveness of local governments to the needs of the community and the success that can result when they support entrepreneurial innovation within the community instead of impeding it with excessive or irrelevant regulations. The popularity of MEKHOs shows residents working together to support each other in times of need. As a result, the entire community—local government leaders included—stand to gain.
Few things are as central to human connection as food and community, and these home kitchens show how community cohesion can flourish at the local level.