California home cooks stand up for bill that would decriminalize their work

Sunday, June 10, 2018

As excerpted from The San Francisco Chronicle:

On Sunday, they joined dozens of other home cooks in a festive, food-filled event in Oakland aimed at halting the criminalization of thousands of home cooks across the state by urging support for the Homemade Food Act, or AB626, whose lead author is Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella (Riverside County). It’s co-written by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco.

The bill, supported by cooking cooperatives such as Oakland’s Forage Kitchen, which hosted the event, would amend the state’s health and safety code by defining “microenterprise home kitchen operations” as legitimate food facilities. The Assembly has approved the bill, and on Wednesday it heads to the Senate Health Committee for a vote. Home cooks are typically low-income women, people of color and immigrants.

Their supporters say these cooks should be able to sell their cuisine from home and participate in the gig economy, as Lyft drivers and Airbnb hosts have done. Josephine.com, a website based in Oakland that attempted this by matching home cooks with customers, was forced to shut down in March because of the state prohibition.

On Sunday, would-be home cooks who showed up included a man who excels at German cooking but can sell only pretzels because of the state law. Another man, from the “food desert” of East Oakland, as he put it, said he wants a chance to provide healthy, sustainable food to his community.

Home cooking “brought my joy back,” McGhee told the crowd. But after a year and a half, the police knocked on her door last year and ordered her to stop.

Ruelas took the microphone and said home cooking had been “a dream come true” because it allowed her to spend time with her children, teach them life skills and show them how to earn a living at something one loves to do. “Sadly,” she said, “that dream became a nightmare.”

She sold a $12 order of ceviche one day. A year later, in 2016, a court summons arrived in the mail. Her customer had been an undercover investigator.

Ruelas and several others nabbed in the home-cooking sting were offered a chance to plead guilty to misdemeanors, pay a fine, serve three years of probation and perform 80 hours of community service. All but Ruelas agreed. The crowd in Oakland cheered when Ruelas said that despite the district attorney’s threat of imposing a third misdemeanor charge, she refused.

“I live in Stockton, where our crime rate is seriously high,” she said. “We have so many unsolved murders — and yet they have the resources and time to come after me. I thought something has to change.”