By Christina Oatfield, Sustainable Economies Law Center Policy Director
Reports emerged this week that a single mother in Stockton, California named Mariza Ruelas is being prosecuted by the San Joaquin County district attorney for selling homemade food - an alleged violation of the California Health and Safety Code’s provisions on food safety. According to the Washington Post, the LA Times, the Guardian, and numerous other media outlets, she could face fines, years of jail time and one or more misdemeanors on her record. Mariza reports that she was a member of a club that meets regularly to share, casually barter, and occasionally sell food. She told the Washington Post “There wasn’t anybody selling it daily. A lot of times, they were just getting back what they put into the ingredients.”
Although the California Homemade Food Act allows the sale of certain homemade foods such as baked goods and fruit preserves with a proper Cottage Food permit, the foods that Mariza was selling, including ceviche, do not fall under the scope of that law. Though the law is less clear about this, there is an argument to be made that very casual sales of foods as Mariza Ruelas reported selling are not intended to fall within the scope of commercial food safety laws.
Efforts are underway to expand the scope of legal homemade food sales in California’s food safety laws which would include permits and required food safety training for home food enterprises, however, proposed legislation has not moved quickly enough to help Mariza in her current case.
Having been involved in homemade food policy for a few years now, we know that there is a great abundance of homemade food sales happening under the radar in community-based gatherings like those in which Mariza participated and that these kinds of violations of the law are rarely prosecuted. For the most part, it seems to us that these small-scale, community-based exchanges of food are not high priority for local health regulators, who have their hands full with inspecting restaurant kitchens, grocery stores, and other commercial food facilities, and responding to complaints. But for some reason, the San Joaquin County District Attorney apparently believes this should be an enforcement priority.
When I learned of Mariza’s case, I thought about how the tech platform Josephine received merely cease and desist letters from local health regulators earlier this year (see this Berkeleyside article for details) in response to the company operating a web platform dedicated to advertising and conducting widespread sales of homemade meals. Josephine’s co-founders are Ivy League educated men whose company is backed by venture capital money. Other California-based tech platforms selling homemade meals have not even received any cease and desist letters from regulators to my knowledge. Meanwhile, Mariza, who is an unemployed single mom in Stockton just trying to make ends meet, is being fiercely prosecuted, facing potential fines and jail time.
After receiving cease and desist letters earlier this year, Josephine reported that the platform would be pausing operations, but Josephine has since expanded operations to more cities, and I have since browsed meals for sale on Josephine and numerous other similar web platforms.
This all seems really unfair. However, to be clear: it's different government agencies that have responded to Mariza in Stockton and to the Josephine platform so there is no evidence of a single agency displaying a blatant double standard. The San Joaquin District Attorney is prosecuting Mariza Ruelas. Josephine and many of its cooks received cease and desist letters from Environmental Health Department regulators in Alameda County. It's unclear what would happen if Josephine started marketing its platform and attracting users in Stockton.
The way I see it, Mariza’s case highlights the difference in the way we as a society react to different kinds of economic or quasi-economic activity: there’s a difference in how we react to community-based sharing on the one hand and investment-driven technology platforms on the other. We too often give the high tech operations a lot of slack in the name of innovation and sharing, while sometimes inadvertently criminalizing actors in the true sharing economy who don’t have the financial backing and clout to cleverly market their activities and evade legal consequences.
Community-based sharing and the type of “sharing” facilitated by for-profit high tech merit different types government regulation. That’s why we are proposing that California legalize sales of freshly prepared meals and other foods from home kitchens within reasonable limits, however, third party intermediaries who facilitate these transactions must be community-owned, i.e. they must be cooperatives or nonprofit organizations accountable to the community, not to outside shareholders. Read more about our proposal here.