“Selling food from home kitchens? There is no way this could be safe.”
It Can Be: A Public Health Perspective.
Two years ago, I joined the team at Josephine, where we help customers order and pick up home cooked meals from their neighbors. As the Director of Cook Operations, I often field questions from folks who are concerned about safety when they first hear about our model. I’m the right person to ask, since I work closely with our cooks to educate and support them. In fact, I’ve always worked in food. From 8 years of working in restaurants, both back and front of house, to teaching gardening and cooking to kids in schools, to earning my Masters in Public Health Nutrition at UC Berkeley.
I’ve seen many different sides of the food industry over the past decade, and not only do I believe that community-prepared meals can be safe, I believe that in many ways, they are safer than their restaurant-prepared alternatives.
For some people, this notion may raise some red flags. That’s understandable. Although communities have been feeding each other for millennia, this sort of meal sharing has not yet become part of the formal food economy in the U.S. So, of course it’s important to ask, “how is this safe?”.
As a consumer, I’ve been trained to believe that bigger is better. From an early age, we are taught that rules, regulations, and big institutions will keep us safe. We internalize these beliefs until we can’t imagine how anything could be safe without regulations and oversight! We take for granted that the same rules should be applied to the entire food system in order to protect people from foodborne illness.
We’re (re)learning that small batch is safer.
The truth is, we began needing regulations and oversight in the food industry because the food system was industrialized and taken over by big corporations. As we moved from farms to factories, food processing and preparation quickly became a “jungle”, as Upton Sinclair wrote back in 1906. Our current conception of what is “safe” has been shaped by regulations that are designed to be bandaids on an increasingly bloated and broken system. In fact, a recent analysis of over 10 years of data shows that you’re twice as likely to get food poisoning from food prepared in a restaurant than from food prepared in a home.¹
People are starting to catch on to the idea that “smaller is safer” (and often better quality, too!). In the past decade, we’ve seen a huge increase in artisanal food businesses in the US, with a growing emphasis on farm to table, small-batch, hand-made, and the like. Consumers are placing increasing value on the quality, ethics, sustainability, and locality of the products and services they use. Home cooked food is part of the same movement, with an emphasis on small-scale, carefully, and locally made products.
Putting it into practice.
Philosophy is all well and good, but the practice of cooking in a home kitchen is often more safe as well. Josephine cooks run local, small-scale, community-based food operations. This structure incentivizes cooks to prioritize safety and accountability (over scale and profits). Combined with our own vetting and safety procedures, Josephine cooks are more safe than the average food operation. Here’s why:
Smaller scale means reduced risk. According to our own government food safety specialists, the best practices to prevent the spread of the top six bacteria and viruses that cause foodborne illness are:
- Frequent hand washing
- Separation of raw and cooked foods
- Proper refrigeration and hot water temperatures
- Use of a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat and fish
- Careful washing of produce
With basic food safety education and modest equipment, these precautions are all entirely feasible for a home cook to practice in their own kitchen. To ensure this, we require cooks to complete a Food Handler’s food safety training course and our own food safety education and resources. We require our cooks to pass a kitchen inspection to verify their refrigeration and hot water temperatures, and ensure they have proper cleaning supplies, food storage, and waste management in their kitchens. In a restaurant there are numerous people handling high volumes of food, whereas in a home kitchen, there is one cook, with a natural limit to scale and therefore a reduction in risk.
More transparency means more accountability. The food system is notorious for the opaque veil placed between consumers and producers. Lifting this veil through direct food sales from home kitchens allows us to do a better job of ensuring that cooks are complying with safety guidelines and best practices. With Josephine, every consumer has a direct, personal relationship with the cook. They enter right into the kitchen and are able to see where their food was prepared and who prepared it. Cooks are incentivized both economically and socially to keep themselves and their kitchen impeccably clean and presentable. The success of their business and their reputation depends upon their cleanliness. Think about it: who’s going to care more about the safety and quality of their food — the underpaid line cook who just came back from a smoke break, who will never meet the customer? Or the mom who is feeding her neighbors and their kids?
Better data means better investigative, reporting, and remediation protocol. Even with these organic incentives in place, we’ve built accountability into our product. Cooks and Josephine HQ receive feedback after every meal through customer ratings and reviews. Customers can leave private notes to the cook and to Josephine HQ, should they need to report a potential food safety risk or violation. If a customer were to report an incident, we would be able to pinpoint the exact source and we could follow up directly with everyone potentially impacted.
At the end of the day, no one takes more pride in the health and safety of a meal, than a cook who knows exactly who they are feeding. Still, creating healthy communities involves much more than simply preventing illness. We must put systems in place to ensure we are feeding each other safely and accountability, but we must also create opportunities for our communities to thrive. Our work is to bring these home cooks out of the shadows and empower them with the tools and education to feed their communities safely, all while creating more opportunities for meaningful human connection. Not only are shared meals between neighbors safe, but I believe they are vital if we want our public to be truly healthy.
¹ OUTBREAK ALERT! 2014: A REVIEW OF FOODBORNE ILLNESS IN AMERICA FROM 2002–2011. Center for Science in the Public Interest. April 1, 2014.