Shoppers come to Corner Farmers Market in Greensboro for the experience as much as the food. Immigrants from Sudan, Pakistan, France, and other parts of the world gather with local growers in the parking lot at St. Andrews Episcopal Church to sell fresh produce and homemade dishes.
Some vendors bring more than food. A tamale seller recently came with her daughter, who performed Mexican folk dances with her group. Kathy Newsom, who manages the market, says the cross-cultural exchange builds community and trust.
“The variety is really a draw,” she says. “It’s a way for people to connect.”
The Guilford County Health Department disagrees. When inspectors showed up in August 2022, they did not see a friendly gathering of neighbors. They saw law breakers. A code enforcement crackdown ensued, depriving the market of many longtime vendors as the holidays approach.
Unlike most other states, North Carolina does not have laws authorizing “cottage food” businesses, which sell homemade food. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services fills the void with guidelines, allowing cottage-food sales under certain conditions. County and municipal officials tack on additional rules, creating a patchwork of laws across the state.
Just figuring out the requirements is a challenge.
Newsom says many of her vendors do not speak native English, but the language barrier is not the primary problem.
“I’m good at English, and I’m good at Google,” she says. “And I can’t figure it out for them. As soon as you do one thing, there’s another thing you didn’t know about.”
Home-based bakers who sell shelf-stable products like cookies must create detailed business plans, pass home inspections, and clear permitting and zoning hurdles. If they use well water, they must submit a sample for testing. Some jurisdictions also require food-safety courses.
Vendors who sell salsas, sauces, and pickled vegetables face even more hassle. They must submit each item to North Carolina State University for laboratory testing.
Many cottage-food producers cannot work at home, no matter what steps they take. Anyone with pets — about 70% of U.S. households — must rent space in a shared commercial kitchen. Canned foods and refrigerated items like pumpkin pie also must come from a commercial kitchen. Meat products are completely forbidden, which shuts down Newsom’s tamale vendor.
Even the state’s simplified checklist, which omits local requirements, looks like a maze. Regulators defend the rules as necessary to protect public health. Yet cottage food has built-in safeguards.
Vendors literally stand behind their products, creating maximum transparency — and maximum incentive to prevent foodborne illness. As cottage-food producers understand, having a personal relationship with customers has more value than mountains of rules and hundreds of pages of regulations.
Corner Farmers Market proves the point. Newsom ran it for 10 years without a single consumer complaint. When inspectors got involved, the crackdown increased costs without serving any public interest. Put simply, the government fixed a problem that did not exist.
“It’s not about cleanliness. It’s not about safety,” Newsom says. “It’s about control.”
Rather than comply, many of her vendors quit selling cottage food or went into hiding to avoid prosecution. Her customers miss the diversity and want to get involved. But the real fix must happen in Raleigh.
State lawmakers should give cottage food producers the clarity they need during the 2023 legislative session. Meaningful reform would create one set of rules for the entire state, minimizing government interference as much as possible. Wyoming provides the gold standard for cottage food laws, along with Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Utah. Florida also took a step forward in 2021, standardizing rules statewide and eliminating local red tape.
Research from our public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, shows the primary beneficiaries of cottage-food reform are women, particularly in rural areas. Local jurisdictions also benefit when regulators let people commercialize their kitchen skills. Some businesses stay small, but others expand into brick-and-mortar bakeries or restaurants.
“We’ve always been like an incubator,” Newsom says.
North Carolina should celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit. Instead of sending cookie cops to shut down safe businesses, regulators should get out of the way and let cottage food producers work.
Erica Smith Ewing is a senior attorney and Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.