The 2017 California Homemade Food Act

Legalizing small-scale homemade food sales — a vital mode of economic empowerment in many California communities

Street art done in support of a beloved SF tamale vendor shutdown by regulators in 2014

[This is the fourth post in our series on startup political activism in The Dish. The first, second, and third track our regulatory progress beginning in 2015]

You probably know a Tamale Lady. She has a warm smile, remembers your kid’s name, and hawks cornhusk-wrapped delights near your office in SF’s Mission District or by your home in LA’s Pacolma neighborhood.

If not, you’ve probably been to a fundraising popup in a neighbor’s dining room. Or hired a ‘friend of a friend’ to cater a party. Or purchased a late-night snack from an impromptu grill outside of a music venue. Or even tried homemade dumplings from a Chinese grandmother on WeChat.

For many consumers, the ‘informal food economy’ is convenient, ubiquitous, and just plain tasty.

But for thousands of home cooks in California who rely on food sales for extra income, cooking from home can carry serious fines and criminal sanctions.
Mariza Ruelas with her family in 2015 — from her GoFundMe Campaign

Take for example, Mariza Ruelas, a single mother of six who made national news when a “sting operation” caught her earning extra income through a Facebook foodsharing group. Mariza gathered over 75K petition signatures after she was charged with multiple misdemeanors and became an accidental, but active champion for changing food laws.

Mariza Ruelas story, while unique in the national attention it drew, is typical of thousands of people, many of whom are single mothers, underrepresented minorities, and recent immigrants, who rely on cooking to support their families. For example, Josephine cooks are 85% women, 35% recent immigrants, and 45% people of color —with 40% having a household income under $45K.

Luckily for home cooks (and eaters), Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (Coachella) has introduced a new bill, AB 626 — in partnership with Josephine — to legalize the small-scale sale of homemade food. As the former chair of the Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economic Development, and the Economy, Assemblymember Garcia was responsible for leading the Assembly’s review of policies and legislation related to small business development. Being in an immigrant-heavy district, he understands that homemade food sales are an important lever of economic empowerment, particularly in vulnerable communities.

The bill isn’t just about protecting economic opportunities for producers, but also about ensuring the health of the consumers. Home Food Operations will be required to comply with food handling rules, including training for cooks, and limits on the number of meals or people served. This will ensure that existing informal food operations observe best food safety practices.

Assemblymember Garcia has passed over two dozen bills in California including a historic climate change package that reduced state emissions and ensured investments into disadvantaged communities most affected by pollution. Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula (Fresno) has already agreed to be one of Garcia’s co-authors on the bill.

For retired cooks, stay-at-home parents, aspiring food entrepreneurs, and recent immigrants, Garcia’s bill will legitimize a crucial source of extra income or a means of incubating a small food business before investing in a food cart, truck, or brick and mortar.

When Josephine first sponsored a homemade food bill last year, it was pulled due to opposition from California Environmental Health Regulators (CCDEH). Over the past year however, we have convened a working group of cooks, legal experts, and food and labor justice organizations who have been able to work collaboratively with CCDEH. As an organization deeply committed to civic partnership (rather than the typically growth-obsessed, and often antagonistic, tech approach), we are humbled and proud of this unprecedented collaboration with regulators.

As of November 2016, CCDEH “supports in concept the inclusion of home incubator kitchens in the California Retail Food Code similar to other home-based operations (e.g. Restricted Food Service Operations) provided that public health safety considerations and local control issues are addressed.”

The bill already has support from numerous labor rights groups (specifically those advocating for historically underprivileged groups), local food economy advocates (supporters of urban farming, local consumption, and healthy food options in food deserts), and other community-food, small business, and food entrepreneurship programs.

This commitment to continued collaboration from health regulators, and the strong support the bill has from so many groups, has built our faith that our approach of civic tech collaboration can work. We are incredibly optimistic, but know we’ll still need all the help we can get!

Do you, or your organization want to support a more inclusive food system? Let us know if you can help organize, lend legal or public health expertise, or simply want to stay abreast by sending us an email!