Op-Ed

Could There Be an Uber
for Home-Cooked Food?

Yes, but let’s create laws and apps that actually benefit the community

By Christina Oatfield | Illustrations by Janelle Orsi

I used to run an underground restaurant out of my house with a like-minded friend. We called it the Wild Onion after the green onions that spring up among the weeds all over my neighborhood this time of year: We even incorporated them into some of our dishes. We had both been involved in creating a grocery cooperative, and now we were looking for a way to monetize our creativity and passion for food—and to make rent.

The Wild Onion didn’t last very long.

Making money running a small food business is difficult, especially without exploiting people or the planet. American consumers spend a diminishing portion of their income on food, and much of the labor in the food system is performed by very low-wage workers.

These are the challenges our Wild Onion faced. Our homemade food enterprise wasn’t shut down by the health regulators, as has been the case for some of our fellow home cooks. We quit due to exhaustion, lack of financial return, and the fact that both of us eventually found full-time jobs that pay our rent more reliably than illegally selling homemade food. We were both young, college-educated women, so better opportunities came our way. But that is not the case for all food system workers and home cooks.

I went to work for the Sustainable Economies Law Center to advocate for local food systems. In 2012, the center teamed up with home cooks and bakers around California and organized a successful campaign that created California’s landmark Homemade Food Act of 2012. Also known as the “Cottage Food Law,” it legalized the sale of low-risk, shelf-stable food products made in home kitchens. Thousands of people have started home-based food businesses as a result. Some have quit for the same reasons that I did, but others have done quite well because they make a unique, high-quality product, work very hard, and have enjoyed some luck. Some of the most successful are selling jams and fruit preserves, organic nut butters, whole-grain bread, fresh tortillas, and special-occasion cakes. However, the very limited scope of foods allowed under this law has prevented many aspiring home cooks from going down that road.

We always envisioned a possible future law that would allow a greater variety of foods to be made and sold from home kitchens, including hot meals.

The California Legislature is now considering a bill to do just that. On the surface, AB 626 seems like a great step forward for the homemade food economy. It would create a new type of health permit for home-based food businesses, one that would allow a home cook to make and sell almost any type of food (excluding a few especially high-risk foods). However, the bill was written not by small homemade food business owners but by the executives and lobbyists of josephine.com, a tech platform that gives consumers a user-friendly app for browsing menus and placing home-cooked meal orders. Josephine.com takes a cut, of course.

At the end of the day this is not really about Josephine: It’s about the role of big tech in our food system. Under AB 626 any tech platform could swoop in and come to dominate the homemade food economy. Despite the growing “Delete Uber” movement, consumers still like the convenience of “gig economy” tech platforms, and venture capitalists continue to invest in new ones. Tech companies now deliver food to your door, connect you with personal chefs, and deliver groceries or partially prepared meals in a box with just a few clicks. The prevailing strategy in the tech start-up world is to grow so large and so quickly that competition has little chance of success.

Food service workers are already among the lowest paid in our society. At least they have some basic protections under employment laws when working in grocery stores and restaurants. What will happen as more and more food labor is under the control of web platforms where cooks and delivery workers are independent contractors who do not benefit from minimum wage laws, overtime laws, anti-discrimination laws, and other protections under employment law?

Could “Uber for Food” apps become as ubiquitous as other popular tech platforms? It’s an ominous thought that’s been haunting my mind.

But there is another part of our food system that gives me hope: farmers’ markets.

In the 1970s, rules were created to legalize farmers’ markets in California. At the time, the idea of farmers selling produce directly to the public was heavily resisted by large agribusiness, distributors, and grocers, who profited from their roles as intermediaries between producer and consumer. Today, over 750 farmers’ markets in California serve as models for building transparent and community-driven food systems. One of the essential rules that has preserved the integrity of farmers’ markets is a limitation on the kind of middlemen that manage farmers’ markets: only local governments, nonprofits, or farmers themselves can organize certified farmers’ markets in California. These entities typically make efforts to support small and diversified farms that are
often unable to sell to large wholesalers. These rules help prevent middlemen from profiting at the expense of farmers.

The California Legislature could pass AB 626 and greatly expand the scope of legal homemade food sales in California, but with an amendment that would limit sales of homemade food via web platforms to those that are structured as cook-owned cooperatives, nonprofits, or local government agencies. This would ensure that no venture capitalists can profit at the expense of home cooks.

This is a crossroads moment for the food movement: Will homemade food be taken over by the likes of Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb, or will it build on the success of community-driven farmers’ markets? 

UPDATE:

The bill passed out of the Assembly Health Committee but then stalled in the Appropriations Committee, where it will be brought up again for consideration sometime in 2018.

Berkeley resident Christina Oatfield works as policy director at Oakland’s Sustainable Economies Law Center. Find more of her writing about homemade food policy at theselc.org/homemadefood.

Janelle Orsi is a lawyer, advocate, writer, and cartoonist focused on worker cooperatives, sustainable food systems, energy cooperatives, land trusts, shared housing, and rebuilding the commons. She is co-founder and executive director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center (theselc.org) and author of Practicing Law in the Sharing Economy (ABA Books 2012).

 

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