As an avid home cook with a desire to bring my food to the public, and as a lawyer who is reticent to flout the law, I support the efforts of California Assembly members Eduardo Garcia and Joaquin Arambula, who introduced California Assembly Bill 626 to legalize the sale of homemade meals. In 2014, while working as a litigation fellow at a nonprofit public interest and environmental advocacy organization, I started a food-related Instagram account documenting my homemade meals, somewhat on a lark. In the two-and-a-half years since, that account has attracted a large following, to the point I am exploring ways to cook and sell my food to the public. AB 626 would allow me to do this, by permitting the sale of prepared meals and other food from small-scale, home kitchens. It would expand the existing California Homemade Food Act (AB 1616, Gatto), or California’s “Cottage Food Law,” from “nonpotentially hazardous” foods such as breads, tortillas, jams, and other dried foods to include hot meals and other perishable foods, like those I make every day.
Eduardo Garcia represents District 56, which comprises a number of cities and unincorporated communities in eastern Riverside County and Imperial County. It is home to a large immigrant community. After receiving feedback the “Cottage Food Law” hinders his constituency’s ability to earn a living, Garcia took action by introducing AB 626. In a statement on his website, he says: “This measure aims to knock down barriers and expand opportunities for marginalized populations who often lack access to the professional food world.” Garcia’s characterizations are accurate. AB 626, as currently conceived, would decriminalize an industry made up of many low-income and immigrant entrepreneurs, who rely on homemade food sales to feed themselves and their families. I fully support these goals and aims.
However, AB 626 is sponsored by tech startup “Josephine,” which gives me pause. I am among the many local food and food justice advocates concerned the bill may lead to the “Uberization” of food, and all the unintended (or intended) consequences that come from the privatization of the sharing economy, such as evasion of laws not designed with new technologies in mind; lobbying to craft regulation suited specifically to their needs; unsustainable pricing funded by investor capital resulting in bait-and-switch tactics for the labor force; and concentration of profits and power in the hands of the 1%. And while “[s]tarting in January 2017, Josephine will give 20% of its company to the cooks via stock options,” there’s no guarantee other companies entering the market will do the same, and this plan still leaves control of the company and the vast majority of stock in the hands of non-cook investors. Ultimately, the pervading goal of many of these tech companies is to gobble up and monopolize the market. When this happens, it becomes nearly impossible for local, community-based solutions to emerge and thrive.
So the fact that “19 of every 20 Josephine cooks are women, 40 percent are immigrants, nearly half are people of color, and nearly 40 percent… have household incomes under $45,000,” is precisely why any law or policy regulating the sales of homemade foods should protect and ensure that control and profits remain in the hands of these homemade cooks and entrepreneurs, not third-party middlemen, tech company executives, absentee investors, and vulture capitalists.
Rather than head down the troubling road paved by the Ubers of the world, Oakland’s Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), architect of California’s 2012 Cottage Food Law, offers an alternative. SELC has proposed a policy which supports the decriminalization of the sale of homemade foods, and ensures that control and profits in this industry remain in the hands of its cooks. SELC’s proposal follows the lead of California’s certified farmers’ market regulations, and adapts and updates them for the Internet age.
SELC’s proposal consists of two parts. Part A establishes food safety regulations and decriminalizes home cooks who choose to sell their food directly to consumers. Part B protects cooks that choose to sell through third party platforms, like Josephine. SELC’s proposal creates a new type of environmental health permit for web platforms or third party enterprises selling homemade foods; it requires web platforms to provide liability insurance to cover incidents of food-borne illness; and most importantly, it restricts the ownership and governance of those web platforms to five categories: worker cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, nonprofit mutual benefit corporations, nonprofit public benefit corporations, and a government agency or a corporation owned wholly by a government agency or nonprofit public benefit corporation. These business models have little or no incentive to squeeze value from workers and consumers. Instead of passing profits up the chain to investors and shareholders, nonprofit and cooperative businesses pass those dividends back to each worker/owner, eliminating the need to extract earnings from workers.
Before anyone scoffs at this as an unworkable pipedream, it should be noted that SELC’s policy merely updates California’s own farmers’ market regulations. In California, a certified farmers’ market may only be operated one or more certified producers (farmers who sell at the market), by a nonprofit organization, or by a local government agency. This ensures and maintains the integrity of farmers’ markets as community-based institutions, and has not impeded their presence or proliferation, with the USDA indicating an increase in the number of farmers’ markets from 2,410 in 1996 to 8,746 in 2015 and 764 farmers’ markets in California, alone. Establishing a policy to encourage, or mandate, cooperative or nonprofit operation is not only a good idea for workers, it has been proven to work, right here in California.
While the stated goals of AB 626 and Josephine are admirable, without further protections, incentives will remain for corporations to keep worker earnings low and profits for tech company shareholders high. It is possible however to meet AB 626’s stated goals to lower the barriers for marginalized workers while truly increasing economic self-sufficiency. With a little foresight we can avoid the exploitation of workers we have seen from other privatized versions of the sharing economy. At this critical time in the development of the homemade food industry of California, we must choose between two paths: one that leads to the privatization and bastardization of yet another “shared economy,” or one that puts the power in the hands of those who feed us.