How to Know if You Need a Permit to Serve Food

Having a food handler permit to just serve your friends at a get together obviously is not necessary, but it may be necessary to have a food handler permit if you are serving food as part of a business or as a means of making money.

If a person is serving food to a group of people where they are making money for serving the food, it is common for a worker to be required to have a food handler permit if they are touching food. However, the requirements for obtaining a food handlers permit differ by state, and even by county.

The requirements for having a food handler’s permit differ greatly from state to state and can range anywhere from anyone being in the same area as food to only one person at the business having a food handler’s permit.

When Do you Need a Food Handler’s Permit?

A food handler’s permit is required in most states, however, the specific requirements regarding who needs to hold the permit differ depending on which state you reside in. As an example, in Washington State, anyone who is touching unpackaged food and utensils is required, by law, to have a food handler’s permit.

This is not the same as every other state, though. In Alaska, only one employee that has the food handler’s certificate is required to be present during working hours. In New Hampshire, there is not any law statewide that mentions the requirements for a food handler’s permit.

Depending on the state, the requirements for having a food handler’s permit differ. States can fall into one of eight categories in regards to the certificate.

The requirement groupings are as follows:

  • only the kitchen supervisors/managers and head chefs are required to have the permit
  • only one employee with the certificate must be present
  • every employee involved in prep, storage, or food service is required to have the permit
  • there is nothing in food safety laws statewide (meaning there are laws set around the city limits)
  • all food-related employees have to have the permit; only one full-time employee must be certified
  • all servers have to be certified
  • the food establishment in general just has to be certified in general.

The following states only require the kitchen supervisors/managers and head chefs to have the food handler’s permit: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Nebraska, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Only one employee with a food handler’s permit must be present in Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, and New York.

All the employees involved in the preparation, storage, and/or service of food are required to have a food handler’s permit in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, and Utah.

There is nothing regarding having a food handler’s permit in the state law in the following states: Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Though there is nothing stated by the state, this does not mean there are no requirements regarding food safety. These states are states where the food handler’s permit guidelines are different by city or region.

In Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Washington, and West Virginia all food-related employees must hold a food handler’s permit.

The odd states out are Minnesota, New Jersey, and Ohio. In Minnesota, one full-time employee must be certified. New Jersey is also odd because servers in certain cities must hold a food handler’s permit. Ohio is the least strict regarding food handler’s permits because the establishment just has to have a person that holds the permit.

Why are Food Permits Required?

Though each state’s requirements regarding the food handler’s permit are different, there is not a place in the United States that does not have requirements around food services. The whole point of the food handler’s permit is to ensure that people are being kept safe. Having a permit ensures the company safely can produce and serve food to people without making anyone sick.

The test that has to be taken to obtain the food handler’s permit is a 40 question test that is multiple choice. To pass a person must get at least a 75% on it, or get 30 questions correct. You can take the test as many times as you need to, but if you fail the test 2 times, you have to retake the entire course.

Having a test that must be passed helps people know and feel confidant that the food they are being served is edible and will not make them ill. This also can help prevent lawsuits towards the company.

Do You Need a Food Handler’s Permit for a Church Event?

Many organizations hold food-related events where food is prepared and served to a large group. Are food handler’s permits required then? It depends mainly on what the organization is and how often they serve food for events.

According to the Department of Health, “A religious, fraternal or charitable organization that has a facility and plans to prepare and serve food at the facility does not need a permit for an occasional event (once a week or less often).” Churches are permitted to hold gatherings where food will be served without a permit due to this reasoning.

If someone were to cater food often, such as for weddings, even if the event is held in a building owned by the person providing food, a permit is required because the service occurs often for monetary gain.

This is an important distinction for religious institutions because food is not being served regularly for monetary gain. As soon as the event happens regularly (multiple times a week or more), it will be required for them to have a food handler’s permit.

Is a Food Handler’s Permit Required for Short Term Events?

If an event is only going to be needed for a short amount of time, a temporary food handler’s permit option is available. People can get a temporary food permit to serve food for only 14 consecutive days. These apply in cases of fairs and multiple day events. When money is involved and a large group that you may not know directly has access to your food, a permit is needed.

In high school, I was in the marching band, so I was used to going to competitions where vendors were set up all around. Every single vendor selling food had to abide by the state’s requirements regarding a food handler’s permit, even if they were only going to be selling food for the weekend because they were making a profit and the event lasted for more than one day.

If this is the route you are desiring to take, it is importat to also fill out an application to be a street vendor.

Though most of the vendors selling food were actual businesses around the city, some businesses had to get a permit just for the few days they would be selling.

Do Food Permit Requirements Change?

The requirements regarding the food handler’s permit do not change regularly, if at all. If they do change, your boss will most likely notify you. In regards to how often a permit needs to be renewed, however, the standard food handler’s permit will need to be renewed about every four years.

Having a food handler’s permit reassures customers that the food they are eating is safe to consume. Having the permit also protects workers and is beneficial overall. Without a food handler’s permit, a vendor can be legally shut down until they receive the necessary permit.


Being part of a really big family, cooking for big groups of people is just how we do things. Cooking, baking, and outdoor cooking have all been huge parts of my life, and I love sharing what I've learned with you.

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