The Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday tentatively approved a proposed ordinance that would permanently allow micro-enterprise home kitchens in the county, following a two-year pilot program.
Supervisors will consider final approval of the proposed ordinance, which also would cover cottage food operations, on Dec. 6.
According to the county, cottage food operations are low-risk food products not requiring refrigeration — such as bread, pie or dried food — that are made in private home kitchens and sold to consumers.
In January 2022, the board approved a two-year pilot program for micro-enterprise home kitches, which advocates say have benefits such as:
— regulating unsafe private kitchen practices that could cause foodborne illness;
— promoting “food justice” in communities lacking access to healthy and affordable food options; and
— enabling home cooks (who are mostly women, immigrants and people of color) to use their skills and generate income.
The pilot program will end Feb. 25. If passed next month, the ordinance will cover operating policies, including how many meals can be prepared per day and fees.
Before the board advanced the ordinance Wednesday, county Department of Environmental and Health Quality officials provided an update on the pilot program for 61 MEHKO permits.
Staff members said they worked with communities on food safety compliance and training, and held 40 public meetings. Overall, they said, stakeholders favored continuing the program and had no specific concerns.
Board Chairwoman Nora Vargas, a MEHKO proponent along with Supervisor Joel Anderson, said it was important to emphasize how well the program has worked over the past two years.
Vargas added that she wanted to ensure that home chefs can continue providing for themselves. She suggested the county could look at possible fee waivers for MEHKO participants, possibly by teaming with community foundations for additional funding.
Because of potential future budget constraints, Vargas said she didn’t want to promise anything, but added, “I think we have a huge opportunity to do this.”
Anderson, who sponsored a MEHKO-related bill while serving in the state Legislature, mentioned the pilot program was the first he and Vargas co-authored.
Anderson said that previously in his district, there were people who “made a casserole, a tamale or something that was truly delicious, and they were selling them out of homes illegally. I thought, why is that? Why can’t we help people who are struggling start a business?”
He added that despite worries over possible food safety or traffic issues, “here we are, after the pilot program — not a complaint, ever. Best food, best cooks, (emerging) careers and whole families. I wish everything we attempted to in government had such great success.”
During a public comment period, proponents told supervisors about how important the home kitchen program is for them and communities.
Roya Bagheri, executive director of the nonprofit Cook Alliance said the pilot program has “enabled the creation of more than 60 new small businesses, the majority of whom are women and people of color.”
She added the county’s permitting process has been accessible and easy to navigate.
Karen Melvin, of the San Diego MEHKO Coalition, said the program has been a game changer and is just getting started.
“I’m proud to say that today that there are MEHKOs operating in every one of your districts,” Melvin said, “with home-cooked flavors that are unmatched by large, commercial venues.”
Through a Spanish-language translator, a woman named Rosa said San Diego was a model city for the home kitchen program.
She also told supervisors that in Los Angeles, many home-kitchen operators are single mothers who have escaped domestic violence.
Rosa added that food street vendors only need the opportunity to work, and “also help the economy of this great city.”
Malcolm J. Suggs — who owns Smoke N’ Peppers BBQ in Chula Vista and is a chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy — said the MEHKO program gave him “the life-long chance of fulfilling a dream* and has kept his family financially afloat.