The Future of Food is ... Home Cooked?
A new California law legalizes sales of home-cooked food, bringing new food experiences and meaningful economic opportunities
By Jaspal S. Sandhu | illustrations by Lila Rubenstein
Día de los Muertos signals the start of high season for tamales. On a recent Tuesday morning, I’m driving along East 14th Street to International Boulevard in Oakland in search of my tamale fix. These days it’s slow going here. The whole corridor is bumpy and congested from the construction of a new rapid transit bus route. As I approach the Quaker Oats facility, I spot three cardboard signs attached to a light pole:
I pull over.
Under a canopy tent on the sidewalk are a carrito (food cart), a folding table, and a pair of red Coleman coolers. Here you can get coffee and atole (a corn-based beverage), Cup Noodles and tea, soda and chips, but I have stopped for something else. I order two tamales—one chicken and one chile con queso—along with a bottle of water. Four dollars and fifty cents paid in cash and a moment later, I have my two warm tamales in a paper boat. Each tamale is wrapped in its corn husk, then wax paper, and finally foil. They come with a plastic fork and a side of red hot sauce. This is just what I need to start my day: something delicious, filling, and easy to eat while standing up. The owner starts packing up by 12:30pm. Even though I am almost her last customer of the day, the tamales were fresh, made earlier that morning in a commissary up the street. As I drive north on International, I see many more food carts, especially as I close in on Fruitvale. Different carts serve different foods: tamales, tacos, frutas. All are permitted by the local health authorities.
Not long ago, it was more common that tamales purchased on the street were made in home kitchens. In large part the shift toward commissary-made street food is the result of Emilia Otero’s advocacy for street vendors since the late 1990s. This has ushered in a much more welcoming city environment for legal mobile food vendors. But the authorities have also begun to crack down on homemade food vendors in recent years. As Mariela Herrick, a friend and lifelong Oakland resident, told me, “People [as in home cooks] aren’t out in the streets vending like they used to be.”
Homemade tamales have gone underground. These days in Oakland, people with roots in Mexico and Central America still sell homemade tamales, but it’s not on International. Instead it’s after Spanish-language Catholic Mass on the weekend or in certain parking lots known to the community. For many years the underground tamale experience has been facilitated by word of mouth. That’s especially true for some home-based tamaleros who only sell to a trusted network—to extended family, friends, and friends of friends.
Technology Facilitates New Opportunities
Today, word-of-mouth sales increasingly rely on technology. In the constant search for the best tamales—a truly social experience—customers are finding out about different sellers by texting or using WhatsApp on their phones. And it’s not just tamales. Technology is playing a major role in connecting us to all kinds of homemade food. Grandmothers are using WeChat to sell beef dumplings; bakers are selling wedding cakes on Etsy; community members are using Facebook to offer meal-prep services for the elderly.
All this presents a scenario that repeats itself across diverse cultures and geographies: People are seeking more authentic and more convenient food experiences. Home cooks want, and in many cases need, business opportunities. What’s happening in the Bay Area now has been happening for a long time, but technology is accelerating its spread.
Here in California, like most other places in the United States, this home cooking activity is largely illegal. In 2016, Stockton mother Mariza Ruelas faced the possibility of jail time for selling homemade ceviche. The Cottage Food Act (California Homemade Food Act, AB 1616) has allowed Californians to legally sell vegan or shelf-stable foods prepared at home since 2013. This important step opened up key opportunities for individuals, but it excludes almost all perishable foods and prepared meals. While a fruit empanada is usually allowed, a cheese empanada is not. Ceviche isn’t either.
Now, this is all set to change.
AB 626 is a California state bill introduced in 2017 by Coachella Valley Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia that allows cooks to sell food made at home. In August, the California State Assembly and California Senate approved it 77–0 and 36–0, respectively. On September 18, 2018, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 626 into law. California’s 58 counties will have the chance to opt in starting in January 2019. Only when counties actually participate in this program will home-cooking sales truly become legalized.
California’s law is a bellwether for the nation. Although Wyoming and North Dakota have each passed a “Food Freedom Act” in the past three years, their focus has been on deregulating food sales, especially for rural residents. California’s approach encompasses cities and includes a new permitting and inspection process for home kitchens, similar to bed and breakfasts, overseen by environmental health departments. It’s also notably different in scale: There are more people in Alameda County alone than in North Dakota and Wyoming combined. Approximately 50,000 home cooks are already selling their food in California. That’s according to an analysis of online communities done by the C.O.O.K. (Creating Opportunities, Opening Kitchens) Alliance, a sponsor of the bill. Compare that to the estimated 73,000 restaurants in the state, as reported by the National Restaurant Association.
The biggest contention about this legislation to date has been concern about food safety, especially at this scale. The bill—amended more than a dozen times in the Assembly and Senate—contains a number of safeguards against foodborne illness. It updates the state’s health and safety code to include a new option—“microenterprise home kitchen operation”—alongside other food facilities. Within this category, there are provisions for training, permitting, inspection, and limiting scale. By legalizing home-cooked food sales and incentivizing home cooks to undertake food safety training and permitting, the bill addresses food safety by no longer pretending that tens of thousands of cooks aren’t already selling home-cooked food. What will the impacts on public safety be if we continue to ignore this reality? The answer sits with California’s 58 counties as each decides whether to opt in.
Although I work in public health, my interests don’t end with food safety. I’m motivated by the impacts of this bill on the well-being of families and communities. Perhaps the most important benefit is supplementary income for low-income families, using resources already at their disposal—a home kitchen and cooking skills. By removing legal barriers to entry, AB 626 will enable small-scale entrepreneurship and income that many families desperately need, especially those with young children. For these parents, the opportunity is two-fold: legal, supplemental income and reduced childcare expenditures resulting from the flexibility of working from home.
Just as we’ve witnessed in diverse California communities, technology will continue to facilitate greater reach for home cooks and enable more diners to connect with their neighbors in memorable and delicious ways. There have been concerns about large technology companies using this law to take advantage of a new labor pool, but the law also institutes rules that expressly protect the home cooks. As it has in many other ways, California is set to lead the way for the country, to open up possibilities for home cooking that will positively transform families and communities through small-scale entrepreneurship. And for those of us who are eager customers, there will be more options for new—and safer—homemade food experiences. I’m looking forward to enjoying some homemade tamales on Día de la Candelaria in February.
Jaspal S. Sandhu is the Professor of Practice in Maternal, Child, & Adolescent Health at the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley. A longtime East Bay resident, he lives in unincorporated Alameda County and has previously lived in Berkeley, Oakland, and Richmond. He is co-founder and managing partner at the Gobee Group. He grew up eating his mom’s sarson da saag with makki di roti in southern Arizona.
Lila Rubenstein is an Oakland-based public health innovator, artist, and illustrator. Trained in environmental health, urban planning, and fine art, she now uses human-centered design to address complex public health challenges. When she was growing up in New Jersey, okonomiyaki was typically on the dinner table.