Food Policy Report Gives CA Legislators a Mixed Review 

Plus, a liquor license mix-up prompts Mockingbird to go BYOB.

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From the labeling of sugary drinks and genetically engineered foods to a proposed increase to the statewide minimum wage, California's legislature grappled with a number of hot-button issues related to food policy in the past year. According to a new report, a total of 22 bills that advocates believed would have a sweeping impact on making California's food system more sustainable and equitable appeared before the state legislature.

But when the dust settled, only 9 of the 22 pieces of legislation were signed into law, with several potentially important bills never making it to a vote. It was that kind of mixed result that prompted Michael Dimock — president of Roots of Change, the Oakland-based non-profit that authored the report — to give California's legislators a lackluster "needs improvement" grade overall.

"If we [in California] want to remain the leader in agriculture and in food systems, we've got to get on the wagon here and do some interesting things," Dimock said.

The 2014 Report on Legislation Related to Food and Farming was released this week by Roots of Change — a self-described "think-and-do tank" for the food movement — and the California Food Policy Council, a coalition of nineteen local food policy councils and agricultural alliances from throughout the state, including ones in Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond.

The report offers a brief analysis of the 22 pieces of legislation that the food policy councils collectively agreed would have a positive impact on the food system, and then catalogs the voting records of each state senator and assembly member on the fifteen bills that made it to an actual vote. Bills that passed included a law designed to protect farm workers from sexual harassment and another that established a Farm to Fork office focused on providing healthy food to low-income Californians.

As the report notes, "The variety of legislation, whether successful or not, is representative of a food movement beginning to articulate its priorities in the legislature."

Still, landmark legislation that would have required GMO labeling and warning labels for sweetened beverages — to name two notable examples — both failed at various points in the legislative process. According to Oakland Food Policy Council director Esperanza Pallana, those failures indicate that, when it comes to issues of food equity and sustainability, the California legislature is still largely controlled by corporate interests.

For instance, Dimock highlighted SB 1000, the sugary beverage bill, as a specific example in which the millions of dollars that PepsiCo and the rest of the beverage industry spent on lobbyists ultimately killed the bill.

"We have the many, but not the money," Pallana said.

BYOB Blues

Mockingbird (1745 San Pablo Ave.), a year-old neighborhood bistro in Uptown Oakland, is probably best known as a low-key date night spot — a place at which you could sit down to a plate of roast chicken and a glass of wine before catching a show at the Fox. Or it used to be anyway, until a recent liquor license mix-up prompted husband-and-wife co-owners William Johnson and Melissa Axelrod to halt alcohol sales entirely.

But what is the restaurant business about if not perpetually turning lemons into lemonade? For the past month, Mockingbird has begun encouraging customers to bring their own beer and wine, which they can enjoy at their table with no corkage fee. The policy makes the restaurant one of a small handful of BYOB-friendly dining establishments in the East Bay — a holy grail for the frugal beer and wine lover.

Axelrod said that when Mockingbird took over the former Hibiscus space, the landlords, who own The New Parish and The Rock Steady in the same building, assured them that The New Parish liquor license covered the entire property, including the restaurant. Only recently did Axelrod and Johnson have concerns, and about a month ago they asked an attorney who specializes in California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) regulations to look into the situation.

The news wasn't good: For the past year, Mockingbird has operated as a de facto speakeasy. Axelrod explained that while it was technically true that the space is covered by the building's overall alcohol license, the particular nature of the license also dictates that the restaurant itself is prohibited from profiting off of alcohol sales — not even through a corkage fee. And because the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control doesn't typically give out multiple licenses for a single address, resolving the situation won't be as simple as re-entering the liquor license lottery.

It's no secret that many restaurants depend on alcohol sales to bolster their slim profit margins. Axelrod said the change has had a dramatic impact on all aspects of the business; for instance, now that each check tends to be smaller, the servers at Mockingbird aren't making as much from tips. But Axelrod and Johnson are locked into their lease for two more years and have a baby on the way in the spring. They have no choice but to make the best of the situation.

In part, they're looking into alternative sources of revenue — more private parties and lunchtime catering. Mostly, though, Axelrod hopes customers will see the new BYOB policy as a big perk. She cited the experience of friends in Philadelphia, where restaurants that don't charge a corkage fee are fairly commonplace. Certainly, a large party that brings its own booze could save hundreds of dollars.

"It makes it a lot more reasonable to go out to eat on a Tuesday night," Axelrod said.

She also noted that she and Johnson are talking to lawyers to see if they can work out a new arrangement with the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. In the meantime, Axelrod said they're having a lot of conversations with their bookkeeper. "It doesn't look good," she said.

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