By Richard Adcock
East Bay home cooking startup Josephine has had its share of problems with regulators, as has been reported by Berkeleyside Nosh. Now, though, the company seems poised to return to the local food scene — this time with the blessing of the California Conference of Directors of Environmental Health (CCDEH). AB-626, introduced in the California Assembly in February would establish a regulatory framework for selling homemade meals.
Josephine, billed as a private network for home-cooked meals, has grown rapidly since its founding in Oakland in 2014. It offers customers home-cooked meals from neighbors, and offers cooks a platform to grow their business and earn supplemental income. But, in May 2016, health regulators in Alameda County threatened to prosecute Josephine cooks. The company advised its network to pause their operations. Urgent action was needed, and it had to happen at the level of California’s retail food code.
The story of the bill itself starts with the unsuccessful legislate effort of AB-2593, which never got a vote, largely due to opposition from the CCDEH.
“That was an attempt to get our foot in the door,” said Charley Wang, co-CEO of Josephine. “We didn’t have a lot of input from the regulators on that version.”
Following this legislative setback, Josephine solicited input from all sides. A coalition group was formed to address the issue, drawing from the larger community and from members of several food justice nonprofits. They also wanted to collaborate with their cooks and the community.
“Through these town halls and legislative meetings throughout the summer, we were able to start drafting a bill,” said Wang.
But the coalition still needed input from the CCDEH, and from a legislator who could actually author the bill. That’s where Assemblymember Eduardo García came in. The Coachella area representative enthusiastically joined the drafting process. García had heard from his constituents about the challenges of operating a cottage food business under existing law, and his office contributed to addressing these concerns.
Noting García’s largely immigrant constituency, Wang highlights the intersection of cottage food law and immigrant advocacy.
“The  Cottage Food Law was partly an attempt to economically empower marginalized communities,” he said. The Cottage Food Law on the books allows homemade food sales for a select few items — essentially, shelf-stable products and dry goods. “But there were two issues. The foods that ended up being allowed were culturally irrelevant, for one thing. Migrant communities aren’t making artisanal jams or jerky. And you can’t make as much money on those things, either. The number of people applying for those permits has plummeted.”
Wang mentions that he’s heard people refer to the bill colloquially as the “tamale bill,” which recalls the Los Angeles City Council’s move earlier this year to decriminalize street vending. Calls to action centered on the familiar local figure of the “tamale lady,” and brought into focus how criminal prosecutions for street vending disproportionately affect immigrant communities.
The Josephine model is itself designed to eliminate barriers, financial and otherwise, that prevent cooks from opening their own businesses. From the beginning, the Josephine team has been about advocacy as well as business.
“Our team comes from a more humanitarian, activist background,” Wang said. That activist bent, as well as the outsize impact the regulatory crackdown had on their network of cooks (technically independent contractors), caused Josephine to start thinking about the legal framework proactively. They quickly realized that the CCDEH had the final say.
“The CCDEH are really the arbiters of all of this,” said Wang. “They have the experience, the data, and the authority.” The lobby represents the combined interests of California’s city and county environmental health directors, who operate as an independent network, each reporting only to the state’s retail food code.
For home cooks and aspiring business owners, this regulatory framework produces an unpredictable and intimidating environment, says Wang. “A lot of these local offices are understaffed, so you end with discrepancies in enforcement priorities in different places.” Collaboration with the CCDEH produced the current version of the bill, which the lobby has indicated it will not oppose. He hopes AB-626’s establishment of a permitting process will allay the public-health concerns of regulators, and protect cottage food businesses from threats of prosecution.
One member of Josephine’s coalition of supporters knows these risks all too well. Mariza Ruelas, a single mother from Stockton, California, was convicted in January of operating a food business without a license — for selling homemade ceviche. Her arrest was part of a sting operation that targeted about a dozen Stockton women selling food via Facebook. During her trial, a petition to dismiss the charges gathered almost 80,000 signatures.
Supporters of AB-626 have put together their own petition, and Wang thinks it’s poised to get even more attention. “We haven’t even pushed it anywhere, and just being up on the petition platform, it’s organically gotten 10,000 signatures,” he said last week (the number is now over 13,000). They also have a call to action page, to facilitate phone calls, emails and letters to California legislators.
The main hurdle that remains is the full vote in the Assembly, which Josephine expects in late May, before the June 2 legislative deadline. While the specifics of the permitting process are yet to be finalized, Wang says the drafters’ goal is to allow cooks to do legal business without renting commercial kitchens.
“We have the technology and the ability now to safely engage in this kind of economy, where you buy food from a member of your kid’s PTA, or someone at your church,” he says. “That is going to fundamentally change the way we think about community fabric, and community health.
“I think a lot of trends in the food movement are pointing to the same thing,” he continues. “Whether it’s local or ethically produced or organic, they all get at the same point: get it from a real person, someone you know. Don’t get it from an entity that is incentivized to spend less money and cut corners with their product. That’s what health really is.”
Wang hopes the drafting process has helped build trust between policymakers and the cooks and communities it’s intended to help. They’ve succeeded, it seems, in communicating their cooks’ needs with the other stakeholders in AB-626. Heading into the vote in June, they hope the whole state — even the whole country — will recognize the need for change.
“I think this is going to make a big splash. The implications of not having to rent a commercial kitchen on people who want to make food — that’s going to be immediately applicable to so many people, way beyond who Josephine is working with.”
Clarification: A clarification was made to this story after publication to make clear that none of the following organizations have yet taken a position on the AB-626 legislation: Slow Food, the California Food Policy Council and Oakland Food Policy Council.