UPDATE: We've summarized much of the series this article is part of in a new report, Policies for Shareable Cities: A Sharing Economy Policy Primer for Urban Leaders. Get your free copy here today.

Some foods are just too good not to share, which is one reason to think about policies for food sharing. A more sobering reason is that close to 15 percent of households in the U.S. have been identified as food insecure. Food sharing is a joy and a necessity, and it’s also just a practical and obvious thing to do. Growing and preparing food is labor- and resource-intensive, which means it makes sense to collaborate in the effort, and to share in the bounty. Cities should, thus, embrace citizen-led initiatives to share food, and should remove legal barriers to it.

Our last article in this series focused on policies that facilitate urban agriculture, and this piece looks at other ways that city policies affect communities’ ability to share in the production and consumption of food. A large number of laws related to food are made at state and local levels, but cities still have a significant role to play in affecting a local food system. Furthermore, through zoning ordinances, especially, cities can affect what kinds of food-related activities take place and where.

Boxes of Rio Gozo Farm produce ready to share with the farm's CSA members. Photo credit: Elizabeth Del Nagro.

Here are some suggestions for ways that cities can adopt policies to facilitate the sharing of food:

  1. Update the zoning code to make “food membership distribution points” a permitted activity throughout the city: These days, many people are meeting their food needs collectively, by joining community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs or by forming buying clubs to purchase foods in bulk with a group of people. Cities should amend zoning codes to remove restrictions on the locations of a pick-up points for CSA boxes or for food-buying club orders. In most zoning codes, such an activity has no classification, and could potentially violate rules governing home occupation uses or governing food-related enterprise in commercial or industrial areas. The City of Portland is considering a zoning code amendment that would allow for “food membership distribution points,” and the City’s Concept Report on Urban Food Zoning examines this possibility in detail.

  2. Allow parks and other public spaces to be used as places for food sharing: Throughout the country, it is very common for groups to be cited or fined for sharing and donating food in public spaces. The National Coalition for the Homeless has put out an extensive report detailing the legal barriers to food sharing. For three years, the Free Farm Stand in San Francisco, California, set up a regular stand in a local park to give away produce and prepared foods for free. It was not until the Free Farm Stand got some press that the Department of Parks and Recreation suddenly took notice and demanded that the activity cease. It is not unreasonable for cities to regulate activities taking place in public spaces, but cities should not create a blanket prohibition on such activities, especially when the activity serves the hungry. Instead, cities should simply adopt rules that limit the number of people, noise, timing, or mess associated with such activities.

  3. Remove zoning barriers to community meals on private properties: Many cities put zoning restrictions on community gathering or food-sharing activities. For example, a few years back, San Diego, California, cited a zoning ordinance and asked a church to cease its regular provision of meals for the homeless. Having a regular dinner party in your home, especially if you ask guests to chip in some money, could also violate zoning codes that restrict gathering or commercial activities within the home. In general, cities should encourage communities to gather and share food, and should remove zoning barriers to such activities, or carve out guidelines for a reasonable number and size of such gatherings.

  4. Create food-gleaning centers and programs: Surplus food is inevitably abundant in cities, though often wasted, due to the difficulty of getting food to the people that need it. Many churches and nonprofits operate food-gleaning centers, collecting extra food from stores and restaurants, and making it available to multiple charities. Cities, too, can play a role in creating food-gleaning centers and programs, especially by providing a physical space for the aggregation and distribution of recovered foods. Even without offering a space, cities can operate programs to bring surplus food to those in need. Salt Lake City, Utah, for example, operates a fruit-gleaning program through which fruit tree owners can register their trees and volunteers will help harvest.

  5. Recognize a regulatory exemption for food sharing within private groups: If a city or county’s local health department regulations do not yet create a specific category of exemption for private food-sharing activities, such an exemption should be more clearly carved out. As described in our article, “The Shareable Food Movement Meets the Law,” there is a grey area between unregulated, private food-sharing activities and public/commercial food-sharing activities of the sort that the health department must approve. Because of the growing trend of community meal sharing, food swaps, and other small-scale community-based food-sharing activities, it may be helpful to more clearly delineate what is or isn’t regulated.

  6. Recognize a regulatory exemption for charitable food sharing: Cities should also work with local health departments to adopt policies that allow people to donate produce and prepared foods without encountering health code barriers. San Francisco’s health department recently cracked down on the Free Farm Stand, which had been giving away food to those in need for three years. Policy makers in other realms have recognized the need to adopt policies that promote the sharing of food. For example, President Bill Clinton signed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects food donors from liability when they give surplus food to charity. Cities should similarly carve out a legal space for food donation.

  7. Pass local laws that enable collective production of food: Although a lot of regulations on food production come from state or federal laws, city and county governments can have an impact by passing resolutions recognizing the rights of people to produce food for themselves and for others. The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors recently passed a “Resolution Recognizing the Rights of Individuals to Grow and Consume Their Own Food and to Enter into Private Contracts with Other Individuals to Board Animals for Food.” This resolution recognizes an important right of individuals to collaboratively produce food, by sharing ownership of food-producing animals, for example. This resolution was passed in reaction to recent crackdowns on goat- and cow-sharing groups. In one instance, the Santa Clara County District Attorney recently shut down a farm that boarded goats for a herd-sharing arrangement. Through this arrangement, co-owners of the goat herd had access to fresh raw goat milk, which is otherwise difficult to obtain. It is generally not practical for a household to keep their own goat or their own cow, which is why shared ownership of animals is an important way for people to collectively produce food for themselves. Cities should recognize the rights of people to collaboratively produce food for themselves without the intervention of burdensome regulations. Although they don’t get around state and federal laws, local food sovereignty resolutions send an important message to lawmakers and, likely, also influence the resources that local agencies are willing to pour into enforcing such laws.

  8. Mobile vending: Cities should open wider doors to mobile food vendors. Many food entrepreneurs are unable to raise the capital necessary to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but may succeed in a more humble form, such as mobile food vending. Mobile food vending is also good for communities, especially those communities identified as food deserts and lacking access to fresh and healthy foods. Furthermore, mobile food vending builds community; customers of mobile food vendors are generally prone to chatting and socializing with each other, much more so than strangers patronizing a restaurant. The problem is that many cities either prohibit or make it very difficult to get a permit for mobile vending. Public Health Law & Policy has put out this helpful set of recommendations on city mobile vending policies.

  9. Create or subsidize shared commercial kitchens: Lack of access to a certified commercial kitchen is a primary barrier to any start-up food entrepreneurs. Shared commercial kitchens provide a space for the incubation of new food enterprise. Cities should form or subsidize shared commercial kitchen spaces as a way to stimulate the local food economy. For examples of successful shared kitchens, see: La Cocina in San Francisco or the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center.

  10. Do not require cohousing communities to have commercial kitchens: Throughout the U.S., there are many new cohousing communities in development, and such communities generally feature a large common house with a shared kitchen where community members share meals at least a couple times per week. For the most part, cohousing communities in the U.S. have been able to build this shared kitchen to look like a very large residential kitchen. However, in Colorado, according to my e-mail conversation with cohousing architect Kathryn McCamant, communities have faced barriers due to the requirement that the kitchens be built to commercial standards. Local building, fire, or health departments have required the communities to build expensive ($10,000) hood exhaust systems in the kitchen, and to install stainless steel counters, which are noisy and take away from the homey feeling of the kitchen. Generally, such kitchens are no more commercial in nature than a home kitchen, so it is important for cities to treat them as residential kitchens.

  11. Allow certain food production activities as a home occupation: Nearly 30 U.S. states have passed Cottage Food Laws, making it possible for people to sell certain foods they produce at home. These food items are those that have been recognized as carrying very little risk of food-borne illness; in other words, foods like granola, jam, and bread, which do not need to be refrigerated. These state laws open up wonderful doors to community-based enterprise. However, cities in all of these states have some catching up to do, to recognize home food production as an allowable home occupation under the local zoning ordinance. In anticipation of California’s introduction of a Cottage Food Law in 2012, the City of Berkeley may soon consider an ordinance to allow for home food production.

How else might a city facilitate the sharing of food? Please post comments below to add to this collection of policy suggestions. Thank you!

This post is one of 15 parts of our Policies for a Shareable City series with the Sustainable Economies Law Center:

  1. Car Sharing and Parking Sharing
  2. Ride Sharing
  3. Bike Sharing
  4. Shareable Commercial Spaces
  5. Shareable Housing
  6. Homes as Sharing Hubs
  7. Shareable Neighborhoods
  8. Shareable Workspaces
  9. Recreational and Green Spaces
  10. Shareable Rooftops
  11. Urban Agriculture
  12. Food Sharing
  13. Public Libraries
  14. The Shareable City Employee
  15. How to Rebuild the City as a Platform
Sustainable Economies Law Center


Sustainable Economies Law Center

The Sustainable Economies Law Center facilitates the growth of more sustainable, localized, and just economies, through education, legal research, and advocacy that support practices such as local investing, community-supported enterprise,