a Startup + the State

Collaborating on food policy reform with CA Health Regulators

[This is the third post in our series on startup political activism in The Dish. Here are the first and the second.]

When I last wrote about Josephine’s advocacy work three months ago, we had just paused East Bay operations after some of our cooks received cease-and-desist orders from local regulators. Now we are drafting legislation in partnership with a state-level working group, which represents those same regulators. Here’s how we’ve gone from confrontation to collaboration.

A brief timeline of our run-in with CA regulators

October 2015

Josephine receives request to meet with local Environmental Health Departments in Berkeley and Alameda County. Regulators convey that “their hands are tied” at a local level, despite the potential for our work to help existing underground food entrepreneurs operate more safely. We mutually conclude that policy needs to change at a state-level.

January — April 2016

Josephine drafts a bill proposing an update to the California Retail Food Code that would make explicit allowances for ‘Home Food Microenterprises’

  • Assemblymember Brown agrees to author AB 2593
  • Josephine co-hosts Town Halls and collects 1500 petition signatures + support letters
  • CCDEH (California Conference of Directors of Environmental Health) opposes initial draft of bill, but proposes a state-level working group

May 2016

Despite the state coalition’s agreement to collaborate (and perhaps because of national attention this drew), Berkeley and Alameda regulators issue cease-and-desist letters to local cooks. Josephine pauses East Bay operations as documented in this Fast Company article.

June 2016 — Present

Josephine + and state-level regulatory coalition begin collaborating on revised legislative guidelines for home food microenterprises, with goal of re-introducing a bill in 2017. More on this below.

Moving from regulatory confrontation to collaboration

React quickly, but calmly

The week our cooks received cease-and-desist orders was a low-point for much of the Josephine community. Initial reactions were all over the map (from fear to anger to denial) and we discussed everything from ignoring the warnings to challenging them in court. But instead of making decisions all at once, we began by simply assuring regulators that we had heard them and were reacting as quickly as possible.

We knew that we wouldn’t get multiple chances to channel our community’s reaction/energy so our initial focus was on communicating with and supporting our cooks. We made phone calls, visited homes, and even hosted a “community resilience celebration” to give our cooks/customers a chance to be publicly proud of each other.

Extend public olive branches

From the first day of receiving cease-and-desists, we chose to publicly re-affirm our goal of collaboration with regulators. We have been deliberately humble about our own limitations and biases, but also unyielding in our calls for reform. Publicly visible, humble overtures gave regulators an incentive to prove that they also wanted to take the higher road. These overtures helped establish our current working group with regulators.

Make inclusive and transparent asks

Fear and anger tend to shutdown willingness to listen. Instead of holing up and reacting among ourselves, we immediately convened a monthly working group to meet monthly to address our legislative initiative with the goal of convening a national coalition to build off of these grassroots efforts for reform. We’ve been transparent about our legislative goals and included over twenty food and labor justice orgs in conversations with members of our community.

By generating legislative priorities through coalition and working groups, we have identified the needs of a diverse set of home food entrepreneurs, many of whom have and will never use Josephine (the scope of our mission extends far beyond the model of our business). Presenting these priorities transparently to regulators, and making direct requests for their feedback, has provided a safe forum for engagement.

What’s next for Home Food Business in California?

We’ll continue working together with Regulators!

We’ve been incredibly encouraged by our initial progress with CCDEH. Multiple parties, up and down the regulatory hierarchy, have expressed the sentiment that crafting a legislative solution for food home food “isn’t world peace”. It is refreshing to move beyond our own preconceptions of unyielding regulators and engage in real dialogue.

  1. Joint working sessions: The CCDEH state regulatory coalition has formed a ‘Home Food Microenterprise Committee’ with representatives from across the state. This sub-committee (within the larger body of 1600 CA Health Regulators) regularly engages with our coalition via conference calls and shared documents
  2. Broadening via concentric circles: Now that we’ve drafted initial guidelines for a bill together, members of both of our working groups will present legislative priorities at the broader CCDEH Annual Conference on September 19th. In parallel, our working group will continue to gather input from legal experts and a broader range of stakeholders.

After the September 19th conference, we will be looking for the support of an elected official to re-introduce our bill for the 2017 legislative cycle. We are working with several nonprofits to study potential economic and public health impacts. We plan to co-sponsor the bill in 2017 with many of the food and labor justice groups that we are currently working alongside.

Onwards towards a more home cooked food system!

As always, we’d deeply appreciate any thoughts on what we could be doing differently or better. We are gathering survey feedback from current and prospective home food producers in CA on their needs and priorities. Please fill out or share this survey!