California is trying to legalize small-scale sale of food made by home cooks. But will it allow tech startups to treat home cooks like Uber drivers?
[Update: On September 18, 2018, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that legalizes the sale of home-cooked food.]
A few years back, Christina Nelson, an office manager and student, craved a more meaningful life. She soon joined the Slow Food movement in San Diego, and began to experiment with cooking local and sustainable meals prepared in traditional ways. Eventually, she learned how to make naturally leavened bread using locally milled whole grains. She loved the whole process and decided to make a career out of baking.
“It was something I’d always thought about as a kid, [that] it would be fun to run a café,” Nelson said. She landed a job working in a commercial bakery in Los Angeles, but the grueling commute from her new home in Orange County curtailed that dream. Deciding to make a go of it on her own, Nelson rented space in a shared commercial kitchen. But the hourly rental fees added up quickly during her 12-hour baking shifts, making for little, if any, profit.
Fortunately, Nelson could apply for a cottage food permit, thanks to a 2012 California law allowing home cooks to sell some non-perishable foods—granola, candies, baked goods—out of their home kitchens. The process that took months, and included an inspection visit from a local health regulator, and once she was permitted, she launched Demeter Bread and Pastry, and began selling bread, cookies, and other baked goods at the Santa Ana farmers’ market.
Now, Nelson sees another business opportunity in selling hot, healthy, and locally sourced lunches at nearby business parks, but she can’t do that under the current law. But that could change. In February, California Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia introduced the Homemade Food Legislation Act (AB 626), which would permit the sale of prepared meals and other foods from small-scale home kitchen operations. Last week, AB 626 passed the state’s Health Committee with a vote of 12-0, with three members abstaining; the full Assembly is set to vote on the bill before May 26.
And while Garcia hopes the bill can be an “important lever of economic empowerment for immigrant, minority, and other vulnerable communities,” it’s not without its opponents. The Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), the group that wrote the 2012 bill, worries that the new legislation could give web platforms like Josephine, and others tech companies like it on the horizon, too much power over home cook.
Reducing Barriers for Marginalized Cooks
“Many of my constituents have expressed their concerns and frustrations trying to work in compliance with the existing, overly complicated cottage food laws,” said Garcia in a press release. “This measure aims to knock down barriers and expand opportunities for marginalized populations who often lack access to the professional food world.”
Nelson, who has struggled to find the resources to expand her business beyond baked goods, hopes the legislation will allow her to have an additional source of income without a huge infusion of money. “It would make it a lot easier for me to expand without renting a commercial kitchen space.”
She is one of the state’s many home cooks, a significant percentage of whom are women and immigrants, who could benefit from the new legislation, which would legalize the small-scale sale of homemade foods like tamales and other hot foods. Last year, the hazards of participating in the informal food economy came to light when the story of Mariza Ruelas went viral. The Stockton mom of six was threatened by authorities for selling homemade ceviche through a private Facebook food swap group. Ruelas, no surprise, supports the new legislation.
Angela Janus, executive director of ShareKitchen and a consultant with the Coachella Valley Small Business Development Center, thinks the proposed law is great, especially if it means streamlining the permit process while empowering small business incubation for those who can’t operate legally under existing cottage food laws. When more people can legally start small food businesses at home, the idea goes, they’ll also have a legitimate stepping stone to successful catering or commercial food operations.
“There are a lot of traditional Hispanic foods being prepared in home kitchens and shared in local communities that are unregulated,” said Janus. She adds that the legislation could help to address current issues of safety, sanitation, equity, and zoning.
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