Equity Is Not Easy

A defense of Josephine’s involvement in the 2017 CA Homemade Food Operations Act

Charley Wang
Apr 5, 2017 · 7 min read

Last month, Josephine introduced a new bill that would allow home cooks to make money selling food out of their home kitchens. In short, the bill will do three things:

  1. Permit the sale of meals from home kitchens
  2. Improve public health safeguards around the existing informal food economy
  3. Legitimize an important lever of economic empowerment for immigrant, minority, and other vulnerable communities.

Impact aside, the bill is noteworthy in that it’s the result of unprecedented collaboration with the CA Health Regulators (CCDEH) and would be a huge leap forward towards a more inclusive and equitable food system in a state that is widely known as a leader in US food trends. (Read more about the bill here)

Two days after we introduced the 2017 CA Homemade Food Act, the Sustainable Economies Law Center put out a critical video response, warning of the “Uberization” of food. SELC believes that for-profit involvement in homemade food sales can only lead to labor exploitation and shareholder profiteering. To be clear, we’ve collaborated closely with SELC on a number of initiatives surrounding this bill, from organizing town halls to regular legislative working group meetings, and we are incredible believers in their organization, their team, and their mission. However, as the organization that helped pass the CA Cottage Food bill, SELC is using its voice and authority to fight our bill, advocating for a version that limits involvement with home cooks to non-profits, cooperatives, and government agencies only.

We believe that SELC’s stance against our bill fails to recognize the privilege dynamics of the food industry and ultimately limits the impact of this opportunity for the people who need it the most.

Well meaning, but exclusive.

The truth of the matter is we totally understand where SELC is coming from. Our predecessors in the tech sector have not done a good job of building trust when it comes to platform-laborer relations. It’s something that we as an organization have been outspokenly critical of and have taken measures to address within our own organization.

That said, limiting the impact of the Homemade Food Act to non-profits, cooperatives, and government agencies would severely undermine its ability to reach its intended audience. The cooks who are the most desperate for ways to make money from home have already been excluded from the “professional” industries. They need to be at home watching their kids, or they can’t afford transportation. They come from diverse backgrounds where their gender identity, race, and health put them at a systematic disadvantage.

When talking to our cooks, I often get apologies for their second language English skills, or dismissive “I’m-really-bad-at-technology” assertions—messages that are less a reflection of their ability, but more often a reflection of what they’ve been told over and over again by others. These are the people who have been implicitly told — and are dangerously close to believing — that their cooking just isn’t that valuable in an industrial food system. Our job at Josephine, is often to tell them otherwise, and to articulate their worth to us, their community, and to themselves.

SELC’s video response, which starts with a story about a lawyer who wishes they could more easily start a kale cafe

As you can imagine, these cooks will also be the last to hear about new state legislation, and will struggle the most to figure out navigation of the required permitting process. They will not be the people who hear the label entrepreneur and immediately think, “Oh, that’s me!” I repeat, this bill is trying to help people who have been systematically discouraged from new economic opportunities.

The promise of a more equitable food system hinges on our ability to make sure that women, immigrants, low-income, and other marginalized groups get *more* support, not equal support towards accessing home cooking opportunities.

Equality ≠ Equity

Limiting intermediation of the Homemade Food Bill to non-profits & cooperatives will make the already-difficult work of equity even more difficult. SELC uses farmers markets as a successful example of their proposed restrictions, but the fact is that farmers markets are a luxury for the white, affluent, and well-educated, and are largely unsustainable in low-income areas without heavy subsidies.

Similarly, cottage food has fallen short of its promise to be an inclusive, sustainable development tool for cooks, with only ~2,000 permits in all of California and decreasing renewal rates. When digging into why, these were the three biggest points of feedback we heard from the hundreds of cooks and CFOs we’ve spoken to:

  1. Low cultural & lifestyle relevance. The restrictive list of approved cottage foods didn’t include the foods that people were cooking on a regular basis, making cottage food inherently a category that was in addition to a normal cooking load, rather than in congruence with existing behavior.
  2. Low economic impact. The list of approved cottage foods also excluded food that people would eat for meals, making it impossible for cottage food operators to sell their goods for reliable, consistent income. People need to feed their families every day, but granola and dried fruit aren’t necessarily helping solve that problem.
  3. Lack of sustained support & resources. Building a business of any kind is difficult, but especially for bootstrapped small business owners. Support for cottage food operators on topics like marketing and growth is practically non-existent, and the little information that does exist on a Facebook group has not been successfully organized or redistributed to those seeking insights.

The language of AB 626 is intended to address both the cultural relevance, and economic impact learnings from the Cottage Food Bill. By restricting scale and method of sales rather than “type” of food, this bill will allow for people to sell actual food that they’re feeding their own families with, and to share the authentic dishes that they are the proudest and most practiced at making. Selling actual meals to-go will also allow cooks to build recurring relationships with their neighbors who are looking for solutions for family meals every week, not pantry items every month.

As for sustained support and resources, that’s where we hope to have some impact. Before starting Josephine, I spent almost an entire year in the kitchens of different cooks running underground catering or meal services. I saw first-hand how hard it is for them to run their operations — collecting tupperware, keeping track of orders, managing customer lists, asking for reviews, and a million other things that weren’t cooking for their community. The truth is, “business savvy” is a form privilege.

We can’t create an opportunity and expect it to help the highest need group without addressing the privilege gap. That’s why we’ve focused on creating accessible tools and education for our cooks. In limiting all third-party intermediaries from helping home cooks, SELC would be asking low-income marginalized communities, who have already had a hard time accessing business support, to try and run their business without the help that is afforded to big businesses, food products, and chains. We’ve seen what it’s like to try and make ends meet without things like online payments, point of sales tools, and customer management tools. Our decision to be a for-profit social enterprise was not an easy one, and we ultimately did so because we felt it gave us the best chance to build these tools and support these cooks sustainably.

These are the learnings and considerations that have shaped the 2017 CA Homemade Food Act. We believe there is a massive opportunity to improve upon previous efforts, and to make sure that the opportunity we’re creating is relevant to the lifestyles of home cooks, is being presented to them in an accessible manner, and comes with the support and guidance needed to take full advantage of it. We hope that the 2017 CA Homemade Food Act gives food entrepreneurs the best chance at competing against the industrialized system — not only by bringing business into their own communities, but also by giving them access to tools and services built around them.

Working towards a more empathetic and human food system is not an easy task. We at Josephine believe that it will take a diverse group of stakeholders to unlearn our dependency on industrialized food and to relearn how to trust each other. We’ve always believed that this effort will take a village, and have already been humbled by the generous input and collaboration of such diverse people and organizations. That’s why we wrote the 2017 CA Homemade Food Act in coalition with over 20 food and labor justice organizations, home cooks, and grassroots activists, and we invite you to join in the movement.

Read more about the 2017 CA Homemade Food Act here and please consider supporting it by calling your local elected official and signing our petition.

To learn more about Josephine’s advocacy work, get in touch or visit us at advocacy.josephine.com.

As always, we welcome your feedback and comments in any form — feel free to email me personally at charley@josephine.com if you have any questions or want to get involved :)

The Dish

Musings on slow cooking a company in a world built for the microwave @Josephinemeals #withcare


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Charley Wang

Written by

chief empathy officer at @josephinemeals | motto is be more dog. | before this: @hugeinc, @ga_la, @princeton.

The Dish

The Dish

Musings on slow cooking a company in a world built for the microwave @Josephinemeals #withcare