California should stop handcuffing home food entrepreneurs

Josephine – the Oakland food startup that’s partnered with Bay Area home cooks to provide healthy, home-cooked meals to area residents – is at a crossroads.

Overly burdensome state food-safety regulations have forced Josephine and its cooks to the brink. If these regulations remain in place, fledgling food entrepreneurs and consumers across California will suffer. Thankfully, a homemade-food bill introduced last week in the Assembly could provide relief.

Launched in 2014, Josephine provides real benefits for aspiring cooks and for the communities they serve. The service is easy to use. A hungry user signs up online, browses through a variety of fresh meals cooked by a person nearby, orders through the website and picks up their food. Because customers pick up meals in person – Josephine doesn’t deliver – the service necessitates, by design, that neighbors cook for neighbors.

Josephine partners intentionally with cooks who are often excluded from the more entrepreneurial areas of the food system. For example, 19 of every 20 Josephine cooks are women, 40 percent are immigrants, nearly half are people of color, and nearly 40 percent of Josephine cooks have household incomes under $45,000.

But in May 2016, local health departments in Berkeley and Alameda – which are charged with enforcing California’s pervasive retail food code in their respective cities – sent cease-and-desist letters to several Josephine cooks.

The state does permit sales of some homemade foods under its “cottage food” law, a type of rule on the books in nearly every state. But the quality and scope of these laws varies.

Some cottage food laws enumerate which foods may be sold, which needlessly excludes many foods. For example, California’s law lists “fruit tamales” as a permissible food to sell, but excludes plain or vegetable tamales.

Facilitating a path toward economic viability for Josephine’s cooks lies at the heart of the company’s mission, says Charley Wang, who co-founded Josephine.

“The emphasis on consumers over producers in the industrialized food world has made it very difficult for skilled cooks to support themselves and their families in a sustainable or ethical way,” Wang said.

But if Josephine is helping its cooks become better able to sustain themselves and their families and communities, California’s food-safety regulations have proved so far to be an insurmountable obstacle to ensuring that sustainability.

But there is hope. Recently, some states, led by Wyoming, have expanded the number and type of foods that may be sold by home cooks.

California’s Homemade Food Operations Act, crafted with input from a broad coalition that includes advocates, law faculty and health department figures, would offer many similar benefits not just for startups like Josephine, but for current and future competitors as well – along with home cooks.

Under Assembly Bill 626, introduced last week by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, California would amend its food code to include a permit to sell small amounts of homemade foods that aren’t covered by the state’s cottage food law.

“This measure aims to knock down barriers and expand opportunities for marginalized populations who often lack access to the professional food world,” Garcia says.

That’s a fair and just proposal that readers should urge other California lawmakers to support.

Baylen J. Linnekin of Seattle, a food lawyer, scholar and adjunct professor of law, is author of “Biting the Hands That Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable” (Island Press 2016). He can be contacted at