Inside the Fight to Sell Home-Cooked Food in California

“We’re trying to create a viable economic opportunity for stay-at-home parents, first-generation immigrants, and low income people of color."

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Aug 24 2018, 2:00pm

Photo courtesy of Matt Jorgensen/COOK Alliance

In towns and cities across the country, many home cooks earn a little extra cash selling their specialties to neighbors—think, perhaps, of the local baker who can be called upon to whip up a fancy birthday cake, or the nearby grillmaster who delivers trays of ribs on Superbowl Sunday. Typically operating by word-of-mouth, these cooks are actually breaking the law each time they sell a plate of food: In most states, it’s illegal to sell food prepared in a home kitchen, putting these small entrepreneurs at risk for hefty fines and even jail time.

But today, the California State Senate will vote on a novel bill that seeks to formalize and legalize the businesses of these home cooks, decriminalizing the sale of homemade food and giving a leg up to an at-risk community overwhelmingly populated by women, minorities, and first-generation immigrants.

On Wednesday, about 100 people rallied in front of the California state capitol in Sacramento in support of AB 626, which has already cleared the California Assembly and would need to be approved by the State Senate’s Health Committee today before it could be signed into law by governor Jerry Brown. The bill, a collaboration between the COOK Alliance and Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, would help California home cooks legitimize their small businesses, freeing them to sell all the tamales, cookies, and green juices they want without worrying about the legal ramifications.

As Matt Jorgensen, a coordinator at COOK Alliance, explains, the issue is an explicitly political one. The alliance, a volunteer-run advocacy coalition for home cooks, frames itself as a labor justice organization. In its surveys of the informal food economy, the group has found that of home cooks who support their incomes with sales of their food, 86 percent are women; 48 percent are of African, Hispanic, or multiracial descent; and 30 percent are first-generation immigrants. These groups are already at risk of workplace discrimination, or, in the Trump era, threat of deportation, and yet find themselves in a position where they must worry about the legal ramifications of selling their neighbors some tacos, lasagna, or kombucha.

“We’re trying to create a viable economic opportunity for stay-at-home parents, first-generation immigrants, and low income people of color,” Jorgensen tells MUNCHIES.

Typically, Jorgensen says, such cooks start businesses in their homes out of necessity—maybe they’re disabled and need to work from home, or they take care of their children all day and can’t accept full-time work. In the case of undocumented immigrants, they can’t seek legal work and are therefore stuck with dangerous, low-paying jobs such as seasonal farm work. Many talented cooks just don’t have the huge sums of money that are needed to rent a commercial kitchen or invest in a restaurant. For these people, starting a home food business, however informal or low-volume, can be a helpful way to earn extra income.

Photo courtesy of Matt Jorgensen/COOK Alliance

But doing so puts home cooks at legal risk. While local laws vary, businesses selling prepared food in a home kitchen (one that hasn’t been inspected by state health authorities, nor received a permit to produce commercial food) can be subject to cease-and-desist letters, fines numbering in the thousands, and even misdemeanor charges that can result in years of jail time. And because the laws can be murky, not all home cooks are even aware that they’re doing anything wrong.

“A lot of people don’t even know that what they’re doing is a legal issue until someone's knocking on their door,” Jorgensen says.

One of the speakers at Wednesday’s rally in Sacramento, Mariza Ruelas, is one such home cook whose small business attracted the harsh attentions of California police and health inspectors. A single mother of six, Ruelas had been selling ceviche and chicken-stuffed, deep-fried avocados out of her Stockton home when she was slapped with misdemeanor charges that could have resulted in a maximum of three years in prison and a possible fine of more than $10,000. Last January, after shuttling in and out of court for two years, Ruelas settled with the San Joaquin District Attorney and received 80 hours of community service for her infractions.

If passed, AB 626 would help protect home cooks like Ruelas. If a California county opted in to the legislation—as written, the bill leaves this decision up to each locality—home food businesses would be inspected by the same environmental health regulators that currently inspect all food operations, from food trucks all the way up to sit-down restaurants. The home cook would have to sign up for a weekend-long, $100 food safety training course in order to obtain a food manager certification. After that, he or she’d be free to sell food and drink directly to the local community.

And community is what underlies the push behind AB 626, Jorgensen says. As much as the bill would help safeguard at-risk communities and help create viable economic opportunities for those who have historically been excluded from legal money-making, it also aims to bring people together with the social lubricant of good food.

“It’s a great cultural opportunity,” he says. “This is one of the most fundamental ways that we can connect with our neighbors and bridge the divides that are opening up in our neighborhoods. The benefits become very evident as soon as you go sit down in a neighbor's kitchen.”