A single mom receives money for a plate of ceviche and is now facing jail time?
It seems too crazy to be true, but is another example of how our regulatory systems in Washington and at home in our cities and states, are crushing the entrepreneurial spirit in America.
Mariza Ruelas, along with several others, was cited for engaging in business without permit and operating a food facility. Ruelas belongs to a Facebook group of cooks and bakers who occasionally trade or sell dishes, share recipes, and organize potlucks.
Little did they know that their group, 209 Food Spot, was under investigation until a sting was set up and they got caught. In July, she and others received a letter summoning them to court where they faced two misdemeanor charges.
Part of the problem with regulatory crimes is that those committing often do so unwittingly. Her comments to Time demonstrate that:
“It’s just crazy because people have been selling out their trunks and out of parking lots for years,” Ruelas told TIME on Monday. “I never knew it would be a problem.”
“There were times when I didn’t have time to cook. You could go on there and pick something up or have it delivered on the same day,” she said. “It was just convenient for a lot of people. Everybody loves food. There was that connection with anyone.”
Instead of accepting a plea deal of one year probation and a $235 fine and 40 hours of community service, the single mother of four is fighting what she considers an unfair punishment and waste of resources. She denied a second plea deal with twice the community service, probation for three years, and and the same fine and she refuses to give in.
The prosecutor defends this use of resources according to the LA Times:
But San Joaquin County Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Sherri Adams said the case has been misunderstood — and misrepresented. She said there are significant health risks behind selling food the way Ruelas did.
“If one person gets salmonella or E. coli and they die, then we’d be the first person they’d contact to say, ‘Why didn’t we do anything about this?’ ” Adams said. “That’s our main objective — people who operate these types of businesses out of their home; there’s no oversight. They could be doing it in their dirty garage, in their kitchen with no sanitation.”
Food safety is a valid concern, but we have to wonder if setting up stings and tracking the Facebook posts on ceviche and muffins of regular Americans is a good use of public resources. Is there not enough work tracking child predators, drug smugglers, and sex traffickers who are also busy on Facebook luring in children?
The prosecutor says Ruelas wouldn’t serve much jail time – no more than ten days in county jail – but for a single mother, we can imagine that is a penalty she can’t afford. Her older teens will have to look after their siblings and her sick mother during her stint behind bars. She is unemployed.
What does this say about entrepreneurship in America? Where would we be today if Colonel Sanders couldn’t sell his chicken at filling stations or Debbie Fields couldn’t sell her homemade cookies before she got a storefront?
When does regulation strangle not just start-ups, but even hobbies? And why is it so easy for Americans to unwittingly commit crimes? Home businesses involving food are a great way for moms to pursue their dreams, earn extra income, or even make ends meet for families. We need a common-sense approach not dropping the hammer.