17 January 2015

Supporting Oneself with Cottage Food Operations

[[Dear Sister,
      If I wanted to support myself as a hermit here in. . . by selling food items I make here in my hermitage could I do that? I am an excellent baker and candy maker. Have you ever considered doing this? Do you know anyone who does?]]

Thanks for the question. It got me reading and asking questions in areas which are definitely new to me!

The answer is yes, you probably could try doing that but, according to my quick research, you would definitely have to jump through some hoops in order to do so safely and legally. Here on the West Coast there are cottage food operations laws in CA, OR, and WA which are very clear about what may be sold and what may not. AK also has a similar set of regulations which is less restrictive than these first three. Further, in your own state a business license followed by a floor plan of your hermitage, an inspection of same, approval of your physical set up, sanitation, food and ingredient storage (which must be in the hermitage itself, not in a garage, shed or other outbuilding), recipes and labeling approval (including the actual address of the kitchen (no PO boxes), all ingredients by weight and a notification about use of a home kitchen) must be undertaken before one is given a cottage food operation permit.

Generally cottage operations allow one to sell 'safe' foods; across the board they prohibit certain kinds of foods to be made under their norms. These are considered unsafe because of the high risk of bacterial growth, development of toxins, etc. For instance, certain fruit butters are not safe (some are allowed but have to be checked in a laboratory for pH levels etc.) and candies made with alcohol or liqueurs are considered "adulterated" and cannot be made as a cottage product. Some baked goods using liquor (rum and bourbon, for instance) can be made in some states but actually require a license from the liquor control commission (etc.) which also requires an inspection of the maker's premises. You would need to do your homework to see what is feasible for you.

Also, in all the states I looked at one may NOT sell cottage foods online (though you may advertise them on your own website if you have one); neither may you have them delivered via USPS, UPS or any other third party. What I thought was really interesting was that all the states I looked at required you deliver your products yourself  "face to face" so a relationship between you and the customer is established and s/he has the ability to speak with you about any concerns. (S/he may come to you and pick up the food but s/he must pay you directly.) So, no third party deliveries, no mail or PayPal payments allowed! Another requirement I found across the board was that in a cottage operation no interstate sales were allowed. You must sell what you make in your own state alone. This might make the entire enterprise less than feasible for a hermit --- though you could certainly set hours when you open your hermitage in a limited way to guests coming for this specific purpose!

The whole process of getting a permit, however, is relatively inexpensive. The initial inspection, approval process, business permit and license, etc costs about $200- $250 depending on the state (some are free of licensing requirements); yearly renewals are less than this. Of course in some states one needs to be in compliance with all the laws and regulations or one is subject to fines. If you have a pet -- as many hermits do -- you will need to work out ways of keeping him/her out of the food preparation and storage area. The same is true for unlicensed persons or children (which is probably not an issue for you). You will also need to allow not just for cleaning but for sanitizing the food preparation area and all utensils used. For detailed requirements check your state's "Cottage Food Operation requirements" to see what rules apply to you. CA and WA have similar norms, for instance, though they are not identical. Of the relatively few states I compared FL seems to be the least restrictive but this was just an impression.

Since you are not (or not yet anyway!) a diocesan hermit (that is, since you are not publicly professed as a Catholic Hermit under c 603) you will also need to be careful about the way you advertise or present yourself. In CA, for instance, any fraudulent claims in advertizing can lead to legal action and fines. If you wish to sell products across state lines and/or have them delivered by third parties you will need to jump through some other hoops regarding facilities, recipes, labeling, and licensing.  In that case you would no longer fall under the cottage food operations category. (Diocesan hermits who have gone non profit (501c3) no longer fall under this category either.) To determine what is necessary in such a case you should probably contact your own state's Food and Drug Administration or equivalent governmental agency. Once you get all the facts you can determine whether this is something that will work for you.

Regarding whether I have ever thought about doing this myself, the answer is a definite no. A number of monasteries and hermitages I know do this but they have separate facilities and a bit more labor than I could supply as a solitary hermit. Some have tried doing this and found the legal requirements too onerous. (This should not surprise considering some of the specifications listed above -- though these mainly applied to cottage operations.)  I do know someone who bakes as part of a cottage operation one or two days a week and who is a wealth of information both for CA and for MI. In any case, while it is something I might enjoy helping with if I were living in one of these places, it is not something I have thought of doing myself, especially with the limitations on storage space and delivery modes. Too, it would probably be neither time nor cost effective for me.

For a list of all states covered by cottage and other similar home kitchen laws as well as pertinent links to the regulations themselves check this site. Bringing Home the Baking