Food & Drink

California legalized home cooking sales last year. Why are they still banned locally?

There are no Honduran restaurants in the Sacramento area, so Jorge Espinosa cooks his chicken hearts at home.

Sauteed in oil, garlic, and parsley, the quarter-sized organs are relatively chewy and have slightly less overwhelmingly earthy flavor than some other offal. Espinosa would like to serve them with cheese pupusas and homemade slaw at pay-to-eat dinner parties in an expansive shared backyard. Doing so, however, would be breaking the law.

When then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 626 last fall, he gave home cooks the green light to sell their food directly to customers, including those they meet online through sites such as Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. But eight months later, virtually nothing has changed as nearly all the state’s counties refuse to permit the sales.

Though AB 626 passed 66-1 in the Assembly and 36-0 in the Senate, public opinion was far from unanimous. The California State Association of Counties, County Health Executives Association of California and several other groups opposed the bill over food safety concerns.

So legislators included a concession: Counties could decide whether they would allow residents to run small-scale perishable food businesses out of their homes. In all but Riverside County, the answer has been a resounding “no.”

That has led to conflicts in the Sacramento area, where local inspectors have slapped the wrists of would-be sellers who think they can or should be able to run miniature restaurants or catering services out of their own homes. Home cooks like Espinosa, in turn, say they are capable of not poisoning themselves — so why not let them nourish others?

“The county’s already trusting me to feed myself through this kitchen and not make myself sick,” said Espinosa, a master’s student who immigrated from Honduras in 2014. “When people come into my kitchen and are eating my food, I’m accountable to them. I’m not going to give them something I wouldn’t eat myself.”

The Yolo County department of environmental health issued local home cooks group Foodnome, to which Espinosa belongs, a cease-and-desist in February after the group hosted pay-to-eat meals at members’ houses. The cease-and-desist notes that further violations could result in up to six months in county jail or $1,000 in fines per incident.

No further enforcement action has been taken, though Foodnome’s website continues to advertise upcoming dinners at members’ homes for $10 or $20 a head. The group also received a written warning from April Meneghetti, Yolo County’s director of environmental health, after passing out free homemade quesadillas at UC Davis’ Picnic Day, which Foodnome organizer Isaac O’Leary said he did not expect.

“It felt like sort of a slap in the face or intimidation to an extent,” O’Leary said. “We feel like it was their effort to put a damper on the growth in this movement we’ve been creating.”

In Yolo County, Meneghetti said the environmental health staff lacked the resources to keep microenterprise customers safe across more than 1,000 square miles. Each kitchen would still be subject to one annual health inspection from her department, though the homes would have more relaxed sink, ventilation and animal regulations as full-on restaurants.

At least one Yolo County microenterprise kitchen is under investigation after reports that its food caused people to get sick, Meneghetti said. The kitchen in question was allegedly producing hundreds of meals daily, Meneghetti said, a gross violation of the 60-per-week cap prescribed in the law.

“From an environmental health and a public health standpoint, we just have so many concerns,” Meneghetti said. “Foodborne illnesses can be very devastating, and we don’t feel that allowing people to do full food prep in their kitchen is really safe for the public the way that the legislation is written now.”

It’s a similar story in El Dorado County, where environmental management manager Jeff Warren said inspectors show up unannounced to survey restaurant kitchens twice a year. Since microenterprises would often be run out of people’s homes and don’t have set hours, the one annual inspection required by AB 626 would have to be set up with the home cooks, who could then take a couple days to get everything up to code.

Without reliable inspections, there’s no way to know whether home cooks are, say, disposing of leftover grease properly, Warren said. That might mean greater fire risk, strained septic tanks and overflowing leach fields, Warren said.

“If (AB 626) made it through and passed and only one county is opting in, I think the (microenterprise) industry needs to look at what it needs to do to get more counties on board,” Warren said. “The best thing we all can do is wait for the cleanup language to come out and see how the bill evolves.”

With no complaints to date, Sacramento County’s perspective is less solidified. The county’s environmental management department is collecting feedback from other departments and affected cities and will present its findings to the Board of Supervisors later this year, at which point it may vote to authorize microenterprise home kitchens, said county spokeswoman Brenda Bongiorno.

California’s Cottage Foods Law already allowed low-risk homemade foods such as candy and granola to be sold commercially; AB 626 would open up the law to include perishable foods such as meat, dairy and produce.

The law was intended to provide income opportunities to women and people of color, though the Los Angeles Times has questioned whether its $50,000-per-business revenue cap would instead mostly benefit the large tech companies facilitating transactions. Other restrictions include a maximum of one full-time employee and a ban on selling to retailers.

But even if Yolo County allowed home cooking sales, Foodnome’s quesadilla distribution would have violated AB 626’s language mandating that all food be sold in the cook’s home or upon direct delivery to a buyer, Meneghetti said. Passing out food to anyone who walked by hungry was effectively running an unlicensed food truck, she said.

O’Leary and Espinosa said they hope Yolo County supervisors will change their minds if the Riverside County rollout goes well. The health department will only recommend those elected officials do so if additional counties opt in as well, Meneghetti said — or if the law changes.

“It’s not something that in environmental health and public health we feel comfortable with,” Meneghetti said. “But if more counties do it and their research is showing that it’s not causing an increase in foodborne illnesses, or if future legislation passes to address our concerns, there’s always the possibility that could change.”

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.
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