Photo courtesy of C.O.O.K. Alliance
Food prepared by a former Josephine home cook in Oakland.
UPDATE: Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law on Sept. 18.
Right now, the tamales you buy from your neighbor in East Oakland and the side-hustle homemade dumplings you ordered via WeChat are part of the underground food economy — and technically illegal.
But a new bill — AB 626, introduced by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) — would change that, legalizing the thousands of home cooks currently selling their meals under the table, and changing the way we eat locally in the process. AB 626 passed both the state House and Senate and needs to be approved by Governor Jerry Brown before the end of the month in order to become law. It would allow small-scale home food producers to sell up to $50,000 a year. Supporters of the bill say it will impact immigrants, women, and low-income residents — and primarily communities of color. (The 2012 California Homemade Food Act allows certain home-prepared items to be sold to the public, but it’s limited to non-potentially hazardous food like baked goods, candy, and jams.)
The bill is supported by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, and 100 food-labor justice organizations in California, including, in the Bay Area, La Cocina, Food Shift, Forage Kitchen, People’s Community Market, and Town Kitchen.
If signed into law, the Homemade Food Operations Act would make California the first state to permit the sale of home-cooked food. But the bill also leaves it up to local jurisdictions to opt-in to the program. If they do, they would be responsible for inspecting home kitchens, just like food trucks, bed and breakfasts, and other food enterprises.
Advocates say it will improve food safety. “Right now, any home-cooked meals that are sold are totally unregulated,” said Matt Jorgensen, founder and coordinator of C.O.O.K. (Creating Opportunities, Opening Kitchens) Alliance. “They have to stay in the shadows, so there aren’t safety guidelines or training to home cooks selling their food.”
Jorgensen — who also cofounded Josephine, a Bay Area-based social enterprise food startup that focused on helping home cooks sell meals to neighbors, which closed this spring — said the bill will also help home cooks “who have been forced into the margins” to make a living.
The C.O.O.K. Alliance was spun out of the efforts of Josephine to help formalize the informal food economy, which Jorgenson estimates, based on researching social media platforms, to include between 50,000 to 100,000 people.
According to Jorgenson, Josephine’s research found that 84 percent of the people involved in selling homemade food were women, and many were immigrants.
“This is a really important and accessible economic opportunity for people who need it,” Jorgensen said. “It’s also healthy for communities, combating some of the anonymity and loneliness in our neighborhoods, and bridging divides in gentrifying neighborhoods. There’s no easier way to connect with people than through home-cooked food. And if you think of your most memorable meals, a lot of them were probably home-cooked.”
… In other food regulation news, Alameda County is temporarily stopping the crackdown on pop-up restaurants in order to figure out next steps. Also, SB 905, which would push back the last call for alcohol sales from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. in nine pilot cities, including Oakland, awaits approval by the governor.