General Rule for all Food & Market Programs

Once the regulatory requirements of farmers’ markets become clear, it may be tempting to consider starting a farmers’ market that is not certified in hopes of increasing food access with less paperwork. The general rule of thumb to remember when planning any activity that involves feeding others is that under state law, all food that is distributed to the general public through sales or other means must come from an approved source.

That sounds pretty simple until you start asking questions like “what does general public mean?” and “what qualifies as an ‘approved source’?”

The intent of health codes is to ensure that the food that people consume is safe to eat. Those responsible for enforcing health codes are not concerned with the sharing of food by private citizens with friends and families. Their jurisdiction does not extend to exchanges of backyard produce between neighbors, meals served at home to family or friends, or snacks provided to those attending meetings in workplaces. But when the food is provided to the general public at events that are open to all, regardless of whether the food is sold or provided free of charge, then health codes apply and the food must be from an “approved source.”

The “approved source” refers to an entity that has been inspected and found to be producing and providing food in a safe manner that protects the health of those who will consume the food. The approved source label applies all along the food chain. The place where the end consumer accesses food — a farmers’ market, grocery store or food pantry — must be licensed to be considered an approved source. The locations from which each of those entities acquires food — farms, distributors, manufacturers, etc. — must also each be an approved source. For farms, it is even more complicated. To be an approved source, the county agriculture department has authority over the space in which the food is grown, and the county health department has authority over the space in which the food is sold — including farm stands on the farm property and farmers’ markets.

A Guide to Opening Small Farmers' Markets in San Jose, California