Christmas cookies

Friends raved when I started making hand-decorated sugar cookies for my children’s birthday parties in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. They often would tell their friends about me, and soon other parents were asking me to bake for their events. Before long a small business emerged in my kitchen. I called the enterprise A Spoonful of Sugar. As a stay-at-home mom with four children under the age of 12, I had limited opportunities for income. So, the revenue proved valuable.

My customers also benefited. Besides enjoying one-of-a-kind creations, they liked the idea of using a local small business. Instead of supporting centralized bakeries in faraway places, they could buy homemade cookies, cupcakes and other treats from someone in their own neighborhood. Customers also appreciated my commitment to food quality and safety. They trusted me, and I never received a complaint. Everyone was happy – except the Rhode Island Department of Health, which shut me down in January 2021.

The reason had nothing to do with my facilities or processes. Regulators never even inspected my kitchen or sampled my work before taking action. They ordered me to halt my operation based on a zero-tolerance law in Rhode Island that blocks everyone except farmers from selling “cottage food,” meaning food made in a home kitchen for sale.

Considering that Rhode Island has about 1 million residents but fewer than 1,800 farmers, the law effectively excludes 99.8% of the population, including me. The only state with a more restrictive policy was New Jersey, which previously blocked 100% of its residents from cottage food sales. That prohibition ended on Oct. 4, 2021, when new rules took effect. Other jurisdictions acted sooner. Connecticut and Kentucky amended their farmers-only cottage food laws in 2018, giving equal opportunity to everyone. Delaware expanded its farmers-only law in 2016. Overall, 49 states and Washington, D.C., now have rules that would allow my business to thrive. Rhode Island is the lone holdout in the small but growing cottage food industry.

The movement fits within a larger trend toward healthy eating and responsible sourcing. Research from the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that supports cottage food producers, shows job growth when regulators let people work in home kitchens. Women entrepreneurs gain the most.

Despite the progress, the Rhode Island Department of Health continues to oppose reform. A 2021 letter to state lawmakers cites hypothetical concerns about foodborne illness, but the department offers no evidence of actual harm. New Jersey health officials already looked into the matter and found little risk. The state’s introduction to its new rules points to “scientific evidence that supports a finding that shelf-stable food prepared in home kitchens is safe for consumers.” Part of the reason is the personal nature of cottage food. Buyers and sellers know each other, which creates a rapport. Cottage food also involves smaller batches and fewer handlers than industrial operations, which enables tighter process controls.

Unfortunately, the lack of real-world problems did not help me when I received my cease-and-desist letter. My only option, rather than permanent closure, was to move my operation to a state-approved commercial kitchen. I was lucky to find a suitable space about 7 miles south of my home in Middletown, but getting set up was not easy. State inspectors required paperwork, inspections, and fees, all of which caused delays. When approval finally came, I faced additional challenges. Instead of baking at home in a familiar environment, I had to work in someone else’s kitchen and often bring my youngest daughter with me to make the timing work.

Rhode Island can do better. State lawmakers introduced House Bill 5758 in 2021, which would have let me return to my kitchen, but the measure stalled. A new legislative effort will start in 2022, giving the General Assembly a chance to correct the error and spur economic growth. Other states already have called off the cookie police, creating a path to profit for all home bakers. Only Rhode Island continues to spoil the recipe.

Kara Donovan, owner of A Spoonful of Sugar, lives in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.