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CAMEO Partners with COOK Alliance to Expand MEHKOs in California

CAMEO is excited to announce that we are partnering with COOK Alliance on a $5 million project that will expand Micro Enterprise Home Kitchen Operations (MEHKOs) in California!

Photo of a woman cooking on a stove

In 2022, the California Legislature allocated $8m to bolster California’s Micro Enterprise Home Kitchen Operations (MEHKO) program thanks to the work of Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia and COOK Alliance. Five million dollars of the budget is dedicated to nonprofit organizations to perform community outreach about MEHKO opportunities; educate and train MEHKO owners; market and build awareness for MEHKOs; and negotiate preferred rates for food, supplies, equipment, and services. The funding can also be used to provide pass through equity grants to help MEHKOs start or support their businesses. Three million will be used by county health departments to develop programs.

CAMEO and COOK Alliance’s two-year project will create a solid entrepreneurial ecosystem for MEHKO owners. This opportunity is particularly important for women, immigrants, low-income families, and people of color.

  • 85% of workers in the informal food economy are women
  • 48% are Black, Hispanic, or of multi-racial descent
  • 30% are first-generation
  • 35% are from extremely low-income households that earn less than $45,000 per year

MEHKO programs bring this informal industry out of the shadows and help them operate more safely; enable home-based culinary entrepreneurs to market their businesses openly and access support and resources; create fresher, home-cooked options in neighborhoods, particularly lower-income communities, that often are food deserts; and enable micro-business owners –primarily women, people of color, and immigrants,– to have a stronger foundation for growth and success. Our program consists of five elements:

1. Awareness and Outreach

The majority of Californians are not aware of the existence and potential benefits of MEHKOs. Outreach will help create a more favorable policy environment and encourage more California counties to legalize MEHKOs for their communities. Building public support for MEHKOs will create a more favorable environment for these small businesses to succeed and contribute to local food systems.

For example, right now, Los Angeles is considering whether or not to develop a MEHKO program. If you want to support bringing MEHKOs to Los Angeles County, join the Los Angeles MEHKO Coalition group on Facebook.

2. Education and Business Technical Assistance

By providing education and business technical assistance, the program will help MEHKO operators build the skills and knowledge they need to operate successful businesses, ensure that these businesses operate safely and legally, and build a more supportive ecosystem for MEHKOs.

3. Equity Grants

Initial financial support is vital as aspiring MEHKOs are largely women, minorities, and recent immigrants, who come from underserved communities and are first-time business owners and have difficulty accessing the capital needed to start and grow a business. They typically have more severe financial constraints than other new business owners and would greatly benefit from these grants, to pay for initial permits, fees, ingredients, packaging and other startup costs. We will award a total of $1.5m in grants of $3,000 each to 500 MEHKOs after satisfactory completion of an eight-week education and business technical assistance course.

4. Cook Support Resources

MEHKOs need support and community to access relationships with lenders, insurers, equipment and smallware companies, and suppliers (e.g., food, packaging, and cleaning supplies). These relationships are particularly important for small food-service operators, who do not benefit from the economies of scale of larger restaurants or food-service providers. We will work with vendors to bring the collective power of local MEHKOs together for preferred access to products and services as well as preferred rates, much like a buying cooperative. The program will also encourage interaction with each other through mentorship, problem-solving about shared concerns, and shared investments in marketing and purchasing.

5. Data Collection and Impact Analysis

To grow the movement, it is critical that we track the expansion of new MEHKOs, including where they are starting and who is starting them, as well as their successes and challenges over time. This information will help guide advocacy and training efforts as well as broad communication to consumers and prospective MEHKO operators.

We’ll be engaging those of you who want to participate in a cohort to expand MEHKOs in California later this fall.  If you’re interested, please email our Senior Program Manager, Liza Rivera-Gonzalez, and she’ll make sure to reach out when the time is right.