Sam Falcon, 2019 Food and Farm Legal Intern
Low Food Access in STL
The city of St. Louis has a food access problem. This may be a new revelation to some, but to others who are particularly affected by this status this is not news. There are many, approximately fifty, areas in the city that are considered a “low access” and “low income” area. This means at least thirty-three percent of the population is more than a half mile from the nearest supermarket and the poverty rate is twenty percent or more. Nine of those areas have at least thirty-three percent of the population at least one mile from the nearest supermarket. This is based on the USDA Food Access Research Atlas. In order to overcome this hardship, individuals within these communities could step up and become the food providers themselves. A local farmer’s market or a church food market could serve as a platform for these individuals to distribute healthy prepared food in an area so desperate for such options while also promoting the individual’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Current Food Policy
Current food policy that affects the city of St. Louis and thus people wishing to sell or serve food in the city is derived from the federal, state, and local level.
At the federal level, the FDA provides a Food Code which serves as a guidance regulation for state and local governments. As such, state and local code often reflects the language provided in the federal food code in their own statutory food code. Some provisions in Missouri state code even refer to definitions provided in the federal code.
As mentioned, state code’s often reflect the language provided in the federal food code. Missouri is not exception as much of the language in the code is taken directly from the federal food code. One difference, which is vaguely addressed in the federal code but more explicitly spelled out in the state code is the “cottage food exception”. This exception allows a person to sell or serve certain foods deemed “safe” provided the requirements in the provisions of the statute are met. However, the state code does allow the local city or county code to be more strict and not allow these types of foods to be sold or served under the cottage food exception. St. Louis city is not one of those local government’s that provides more strict standards for the types of food which can be sold or served. The city has adopted and implemented the standards set forth in the cottage food exception. In fact, the city’s food code is much shorter than either the federal or state code. Therefore, where the city code has not spoken on a subject, the state code would apply.
Currently, at the city level, a temporary health permit or a cottage food waiver is required to sell food to the public. However, other permits or waivers through other city agencies are required to even apply for either of those documents. Further, even after obtaining the permit/waiver, where the food is prepared and where it can be sold is limited to certain locations depending on the permit. One large hurdle is the prohibition on selling any food prepared in a home kitchen that does not fall under the cottage food exception. The specific food being prepared is either categorized under the cottage food requirement or all other foods outside the exception. If the food is within the exception then it can be prepared in a home kitchen, which clears one large hurdle in the food selling process. The process, as it currently stands, requires serious calculated maneuvering.
Solutions: Focus Going Forward
The current process to become an eligible seller of food in St. Louis is exhausting and cumbersome. Solutions should focus on easing accessibility to the required documents so that ordinary citizens are not discouraged from taking part in the process to become eligible sellers. Solutions will likely be limited to those that will not affect the necessary steps to ensure for the safety of the community. As such, health/food inspections will not be eliminated in any capacity. One solution that seems immediately practical reduces the cost of the various permits required before an individual can sell food to the public. A reduction in the permit prices will encourage more entrepreneurs to take on the challenge of providing health foods to “low access” and “low income” areas where health food options, like supermarkets, have abandoned the people. This reduction in permit prices seemingly makes the daunting path to seller eligibility a little more manageable and thus a worthwhile venture. Problems with a reduction in these prices may result in a loss of crucial funding for the city agency’s that issue these permits. However, even a slight increase in funding from the city budget would likely ease this burden enough to make this solution attainable. Other solutions still could prove useful but a focus on easing the burden on the process for the applicant and soon to be seller should be the immediate concentration.
Below is a fictional story of what food selling could look like for a resident of the City of St. Louis and the ending illustrates what MCE hopes can occur with policy change in the near future.
One day Betty looked around and decided to take matters into her own hands. The community had recently lost access to a source of healthy food, the local supermarket. Betty now lives in what is considered a “low access” and “low income” area of St. Louis. This means Betty lives in an area that at least thirty-three percent of the population is more than a half mile from the nearest supermarket and the poverty rate is twenty percent or more. Because of her situation, Betty sees an opportunity to provide her community with much needed access to healthy food while also feeding her entrepreneurial spirit by selling healthy homemade food to the public at a reasonable price. Betty is, after all, locally known for her famous jam and salsa recipes.
Betty needed a platform to sell her homemade products. She heard about a church in the community that once every month likes to let church members come together and sell various baked goods in order to raise some funds. Betty contacted the church to explain her ambitions to provide the community with healthy food and the church emphatically supported her endeavor so much they allowed her the privilege of a spot at the monthly event to sell her products. After determining she will sell her products at the church event, Betty does some background research and finds that the city must approve of her selling these foods to the public.
Betty decided to take part in a two-step dance with the city government in order to get approved to sell home-made healthy food products to her fellow community members. In order to sell jams Betty finds out that she needs a “Cottage Food Production Waiver” from the Department of Health. Jams and a few other select food products, as she learned, are allowed to be prepared in her home kitchen and sold to the public. This is an exception to the general rule that any food prepared at home cannot be sold to the public. While learning this, Betty also realized she must obtain other permits in order get an approved cottage food waiver. From the Building Division, Betty must obtain a Home Occupancy Waiver and a Conditional Use Permit since her business and food preparation occurs in her home. From the License Collector’s Office, she must obtain a Home Occupation License in order to sell the jams.
But in order to sell her famous salsa, Betty finds out she needs something other than the cottage food waiver as salsa does not fall under the exceptions in the waiver. The Department of Health informs her that she must get a “Temporary Health Permit” in order to sell the salsa to the public and that the salsa must be prepared in a facility that has been inspected and approved by the Department of Health. The Department of Health informs her this is required since the salsa is considered a “potentially hazardous food” rather than a “not potentially hazardous food” which would not require a permit. Betty also needs permits from Building Division and License Collector but luckily she already has them from the jam application. Now the only problem Betty needs to have resolved is where to prepare the salsa since she can’t prepare it in her home. Betty has a couple options in order to comply with the requirement that her salsa be prepared in an approved facility. Betty has a friend, Ron, who owns a large restaurant with an approved commercial kitchen. The church also has an approved commercial kitchen. Betty could prepare the food in Ron’s kitchen but the Department of Health tells her she would still need an individual Temporary Health Permit when selling the food at the church event. But if Betty prepared the salsa in the church kitchen and the church gets a Temporary Health Permit for the event, she can sell the food under the church’s permit. Betty is particularly fond of this option because it would save her some money and the headache of having to apply for another permit.
Now that Betty has encountered the exhaustive process for and the problems involved with obtaining a permit or waiver in order to sell food, she is focused on finding some solutions to help ease the burden for locals like herself in order to more easily distribute healthy food. Betty knows that, although the process is exhausting, it is necessary to ensure for the safety of the community. However, Betty does wish the cost of the process was less burdensome. As such, one solution that she is particularly focused on right now is to reduce the cost of the various permits required before she and others can sell food to the public. A reduction in the permit prices, she believes, will encourage more entrepreneurs like herself to take on the challenge of providing healthy foods to “low access” and “low income” areas where healthy food options, like supermarkets, have abandoned the people.
Numerous people at the church event where she sells her jam and salsa have commented on their desire to follow in Betty’s footsteps in providing healthy food to the community. Betty’s decision to take matters into her own hands could very well result in a community coming together to provide healthy food options to the public while also cultivating local entrepreneurship.