Food is made by people.

Reframing the dialogue around our food system

Uber for x, the “sharing” economy, on-demand food. For a startup at the intersection of food and technology, there is no shortage of hot-topic labels to try on for size. In the two years of working on Josephine, we’ve had parts of our story told for us — people have been happy to write about the experience, the business, and the food, but generally never engage in a dialogue around our current food system and the mission behind our work. Instead, the mainstream discourse around food startups today focuses on business models, consumer value propositions, and food products. The narratives have answered WHAT, WHEN, and HOW, and are speaking to the widest subset of consumers — everyone and anyone who eats food.

As a team of activists and humanitarians, Josephine is not just here to serve the consumers. We serve cooks that have been disenfranchised and excluded from professional food industry opportunities. We’re here to clear the air on WHO we work for and WHY they matter. Our true scope of work extends beyond the success of our business, and is measured in our impact on these peoples’ lives and the food system. We believe that food is about people, and that the insidious issues affecting our food system are socio-political.

When Tal and I first set out to practice and learn about home cooking in April of 2014, the main question we were trying to answer was “what is home cooking?” Eight months into cooking ourselves and working with dozens of home cooks, we realized that home cooking has nothing to do with where the food is made, what is in the food, or even how it’s cooked. All of those things are subjective and vary within households and cultures. We believe that home cooked food is defined as de-commoditized food.

In other words, food is home-cooked when it is made by a person, not a company. Our food system has become so industrialized and production-oriented that the very definition of the word “food” now requires “home-cooked” to indicate that it was produced in the context of people feeding each other. In contrast, “food” is now more likely to reference industrialized food options. Technological advancements and the rise of industrialization have disassociated food products from the people that make them. We can’t see the people that make our food, much less talk to them or empathize with them.

Our current food industry encourages us to place more value on products than people.

This disassociation allows for more apathetic and even abusive behavior in a profit-minded industry. Food companies have an inherent mandate to increase profit by selling more and spending less. Objectively, the biggest costs to cut in the production process are materials (ingredients) and human labor. This is how food companies justify prioritizing growth at the cost of product quality and the livelihoods of the people producing that food.

The commoditization of labor in the food industry should not be news — when people think minimum wage, they think fast food and restaurants — industries built on low cost ingredients and cheap labor. A new wave of food tech companies are further optimizing this model by centralizing production and delivery — increasing the cognitive and physical distance between consumers and the people who made their food.

The ugliest truth behind cheap, consistent and crave-able food products isn’t what’s in them, but that they’re being subsidized by the livelihoods of real people that have been intentionally hidden from view.

We are a country dangerously dependent on products that hurt the health and well-being of food consumers and producers alike.

Why is this happening, and where are the people trying to stop this trend? The answer is: they’re everywhere. People who see the perilous state of our food system are working at food and agriculture justice organizations all over the country trying to reduce our dependence on industrialized food products. Consumers are waking up, something characterized by the mainstream interest in things like organic food, veganism, and small-scale artisan goods.

The real reason we’re still losing the battle is because the rules of the game have been rigged against us. Competition and high overhead are to blame for profit- and scale-oriented businesses, but it is our regulatory environment that is making local small-scale food production illegal.

Existing regulation has excluded and disenfranchised the cooks that feed our population.

Cooking is a fundamental lever of economic empowerment that can help those who need it the most. U.S. regulations do not allow for the exchange of food for money without commercial food facilities, business permits, and the resources required to navigate these complex processes (read: lots of spare time and thousands of dollars). These factors are extremely prohibitive for most people, especially stay-at-home parents, immigrants, and others who are not only the most disadvantaged members of the work force, but who are also the most practiced home cooks. The people who nourish our families and communities are both prohibited from benefiting from their skills, they are also actively denied the education, safety training, and pooled resources that could help them be safer, more accountable, and more successful in their cooking.

The disenfranchisement of home cooks strengthens our dependency on industrially produced goods. It is fueling the larger trend of displacement and gentrification in the United States. The same people who are systemically disadvantaged in our society are being denied the opportunity to benefit from or be compensated for the popularization and capitalization of their culture’s food. The ramifications of our regulatory environment impact more than just our plates and kitchens — they continue to enforce the most egregious inequity and bias in our social fabric.

We believe that the shortcomings of our current food system can be improved through support for local, small-scale home food businesses. The food you prepare for yourself and your loved ones is inherently more sustainable, trustworthy, and healthy than food made by corporations. At Josephine, we believe that food made with love is the most honest, universal, and fundamental standard for food. Technological advancements can further separate us from food’s source or connect us back to the hearth. We have the choice.

The mission behind Josephine is to champion the cooks— the givers, the mothers and fathers, the nourishers for whom giving boldly is the default. This matters for everyone, not just because we all eat, but because we are all participants in this society.

We are proud to work with local food justice and labor partners, as well as leaders in the existing Cottage Food movement around the country to catalyze the dialogue around a more equitable and inclusive food system.

The work we have set out to do extends beyond a business model, and requires more than problem solving skills. It requires patience, empathy, vulnerability, and persistence. Thank you for lending us your energy. Together, we can rebuild faith in a broken system.

With so much love, the Josephine team.

This morning we launched a petition. If this post resonated with you, please take 30 seconds to show that you care about inclusive opportunities in the food industry by signing this petition!

Know someone who loves to cook? Send them here!