Tennessee legislators passed a revolutionary new bill in July. The Food Freedom Act allows small food vendors operating under cottage law to sell their goods to any store in the state, as well as online, with little regulation. Cottage law operation means that the business is run from a domestic kitchen with no active permits or inspections. Now, many of these businesses can sell directly to retail stores which unlocks new lines of revenue and, for consumers, means a greater variety of locally produced food products.
The changes that come with the new law only apply to shelf-stable foods. This includes tons of dry goods from fresh roasted coffee and tea, to pasta, canned goods, condiments, and baked goods with no frosting. As long as the product doesn’t require refrigeration and isn’t going to spoil quickly, it can be sold anywhere within Tennessee state lines. This includes person-to-person, over the internet, and — most excitingly — at third-person vendors.
Only a few requirements apply beyond this, and they are simply a matter of careful labeling:
- First, each label must have the producer’s full name, address, and telephone number.
- Second, the common name of the product contained.
- Third, a list of ingredients in the product in order of weight.
- And last, the statement, “This product was produced at a private residence that is exempt from state licensing and inspection. This product may contain allergens.”
Done writing? That’s it! The simplicity of the law allows for small, home operations across the state to sell more broadly than before. If you’d like to read more into the specifics of the Tennessee Food Freedom Act, you can do so here.
I had the pleasure of speaking with the bill’s sponsor, State Senator Frank Niceley, about the new bill and his goals going forward. Senator Niceley puts a high priority on sponsoring food bills to strengthen the Tennessee economy and protect us from both current and impending food shortages — massively important issues that are frequently overlooked by legislators today. “I’ve been worried about food freedom and food security for a long time,” he explains. Last year, Senator Joey Hensley sponsored a bill that allowed owners of multiple micro-markets (think vending machines and other electronic, unattended prepared food kiosks) to file a single tax return for the combined sales of all of them together, simplifying the entire business model considerably. For Senator Niceley, this was a step forward that could be taken further. The “bill last year didn’t change what we could sell, only how we could sell,” he explains.
Niceley’s priorities lie largely with strengthening Tennessee as a state by freeing trade within it. He tells me that in the last few years, he managed to help pass a bill that allowed ivermectin to be sold over the counter. “I believe we’re the only state that does,” he muses. The new Food Freedom bill, and more to follow, will specifically fortify small businesses as well as farmers, he hopes. “We try to do a lot for the small farmers and producers,” he explains. “We have a lot of great food here in Tennessee.”
He’s right. Tennessee, with our open space and temperate climate, is full of lush, high-producing farmland for produce, meat, dairy, and eggs. As of 2021, Tennessee had the eighth most farms in the country at 69,500 — that’s 500 more than California. Most of these farms are much smaller than the national average. Where a small family farm in the United States is generally about 231 acres, the average farm in Tennessee is 155. These small farms work hard to produce high quality goods. With more than half of our state farms hosting cattle, “we have more raw dairies than grade A dairies,” tells Niceley. A big proponent of raw milk, Niceley raises cattle himself. He explained that he would love to see the spread of specific equipment that gives raw milk producers the ability to test and sell safely.
Going forward, Niceley hopes to introduce even more legislation to free the food produced right here at home. One way is by “trying to get more USDA processing plants” built across the state. This way, farmers can have their food tested more conveniently and sell it directly to customers. In this way, Niceley hopes to “cut out the middleman” and allow more farms to blossom without the interference of larger corporations. This would be a great boon to small farmers, who currently run labor intensive, costly operations — for an average annual income of forty thousand dollars per year. He also recommends that existing farmers sign up for the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, a service that costs $11 per month and provides legal teams for any who might need them. “It’s like legal insurance,” he explains. The senator’s work to boost our state economy, increase food sources, and educate the public will continue as long as he’s here, and I’m grateful.
ONE ROASTER'S JOURNEY
The Tennessee Food Freedom Act is allowing small business owners like coffee roaster Aaron Brinkley of Etowah to spread quality food to a wider market. Hinkley started his home business, Hiwassee Roasted Coffee, only a bit over a year ago, but now roasts some of the finest coffee in Eastern Tennessee. Using only single origin beans, Hinkley roasts in an Artisan 3-e “air roaster” or “fluid bed roaster,” where hot air forces through a bed of green coffee beans, rotating them all and pulling out any chaf or smoke. The result? “You taste the bean and the roast,” Hinkley explains. As opposed to large drum roasters, where chaf can get cooked into beans and muddy their flavor, you get a “cleaner cup of coffee.”
Hinkley says he’s found a great community of coffee roasters online helping him to perfect the craft. “A lot of roasters are willing to help out and give advice,” marvels Hinkley. “It’s been a real pleasant surprise.” One great help he’s found is Genuine Origin, a website that allows individuals to purchase quality coffee beans from specific regions and provides information about washing, drying processes, and flavor profiles. “Each region in a different country can have a completely different flavor profile, with one chocolatey or nutty and another down the road more fruity,” he explains. Hinkley hopes to spread awareness about how much can be offered from a simple morning cup. “I wanted to roast a coffee that was better than what most people have at their disposal around here… there’s so much depth in coffee,” he states. “The funnest thing about doing this is being able to educate.” He mentions the genuine joy found in watching someone smell the fresh medium or light-roasted beans he produces from his home. “You can see the look on their face,” he laughs.
With the new law, Hinkley is able to spread his quality, Tennessee-roasted coffee across the entire state. “Beforehand, I was really limited as to what different avenues I could sell my product,” he says. These avenues were limited indeed — Hiwassee Roasted Coffee could only be sold in small venues like roadside stands, community craft fairs, and the internet. The new bill has opened up those avenues. “As long as the business doesn’t mind that it’s homemade items, you’re able to sell anywhere… That’s been a big positive as far as that’s concerned,” he states. The expansion of Hiwassee Roasted Coffee is coming very soon, and Hinkley “has already been able to sell at a few shops in Etowah,” with plans to sell to more retail stores going forward. “I could sell wholesale bags of coffee for them to resell,” he adds. “I eventually plan to do that.”
Aaron Hinkley is fortunate to live in this state, where passion for quality products is now free to become a viable business opportunity for so many. What began for him as a love for good coffee (“I would always try to find the best tasting coffee I could get”) has turned into sharing with family and friends, his town, community festivals, and now finally, the entirety of Tennessee. Alongside the growth of his business, he will gain the ability to make even better tasting coffee. Hinkley explains that the growth of his small business has been a “continual learning process,” adding “it’s been a fun learning process though.” In his words, “I just like good coffee.”
A BETTER HOME
The Tennessee Food Freedom Act increases the supply of food in our state, allows for the growth of small businesses to fuel our economy, and encourages passionate people from all over the food industry to pursue the development of quality products for all of us. Niceley’s bill is a boon to the general commercial environment and opens the door for quality, local products to enter the market. I myself now have the opportunity to sell my own homemade herbal tea blends to stores for resale; “life changing” was the phrase used when I learned of the bill’s passing. The bill is truly a heartwarming affirmation of the American dream: with passion, drive, and time, one can contribute to their local economy and welfare — and make a living all the while.