San Francisco Chronicle: California home cooks stand up for bill that would decriminalize their work

June 10, 2018

By Nanette Asimov

Mariza Ruelas, a single mother, believed she had found the perfect way to support her children and be at home to raise them: She became a home cook four years ago, selling tortas, pozole and chicken-stuffed avocados out of her Stockton residence to salivating crowds.

In Berkeley, Renée McGhee found a similar solution to her growing depression. After spending 11 weeks recovering from two broken hands, she re-created family recipes and sold them from home to fans who couldn’t get enough of them.

The women’s innovation made them criminals under California law.

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., 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.”

By then, others had the same idea. Matt Jorgensen, who coordinates a coalition called the COOK Alliance (for Creating Opportunities, Opening Kitchens), had been working with public health officials to craft a bill they could support. The California Conference of Directors of Environmental Health gave Jorgensen a dozen requirements, including that home-sold food be prepared and served in one day. No raw milk products or oysters could be sold. Cooks could sell no more than 60 meals a week and could gross no more than $50,000 a year, adjusted annually for inflation.

Jorgensen’s group agreed to everything. But he said the health directors had one more condition: Other public safety groups — the Health Officers Association of California, the County Health Executives Association of California, and the California State Association of Counties — also had to be on board.

That didn’t happen.

So supporters, including Wiener, who showed up Sunday, are doubling down to gather public support.

“We all want to have good safety standards,” he told the crowd. “But it’s time to modernize this law to reflect the reality of people’s lives.”

McGhee and Ruelas say they want the bill to pass so they can get back to work. As for Ruelas, she completed 80 hours of community service serving the homeless meals she didn’t cook. In April, she said, all charges against her were dropped.

Read the story here: