No Home-Cooked Meals For the Poor? Give Me a Break!

It's the season for giving. Lots of people want to give. Many want to cook for the homeless -- but watch out, the government wants to make sure you're doing it their way.

Many churches in Fairfax County, Va., serve home-cooked meals to the poor.

The Rev. Kathleen Chesson of First Christian Church in Falls Church told us:

"They love our food because it's home-cooked."

And the cooks, like Mary Baker, love preparing it. "I love cooking. I love it," she said. "I can take a little bit of something, like a soup bone? And I can make a whole pot of something. Tastes good. With some cornbread. You got a meal!"

"The importance of having a home-cooked meal," one homeless person told us, "[is that] you feel people put love in what they do."

Many volunteers, like Baker and Ruth Neikirk, first prepare the food at home. Ruth always bakes her favorites. "I love these myself," she said, gesturing to her breakfast muffins. "So I hope they will!"

Then she brings it all to the church, where they serve it to the homeless.

Charity, Or Criminal Activity?

It looks like a happy affair, but are you aware that this is criminal activity?!! They're preparing food, serving food to people. According to Fairfax County health department regulations, that's not safe, and last week there was a crackdown on the lawlessness.

Hundreds of pages of regulation say that to serve food to the public, you need a food manager certificate, a ware-washing machine (with internal baffles), drain-boards, ventilation hood systems, a sink with at least three compartments, as well as a hand-washing sink, can openers with removable parts, and so on for hundreds of pages … and you must get a commercial kitchen license.

Homeless people we talked to were outraged at the bureaucrats. "Some of them take their jobs just a little too seriously," said one man. "They got nothing better to do than sit around and write legislation."

"I thought they was crazy," said another man. "I mean, [the churches are] helping people and they're trying to stop it."

It does seem crazy, but the county health department was just enforcing its rules. And there had been a complaint… not about anyone getting sick, but an "advocate for the homeless" pointed out that the church kitchens didn't meet code.

"Give us a break," said The Rev. Judy Fender of Burke United Methodist Church. "We can fix a nice meal here, but we can't serve it."

Consider the Alternative

That is weird. Did the health department ever think of where the homeless eat when they don't eat at these churches?

"They've never stopped me from eating out of a dumpster or a trash can before," said a homeless man.

Dumpster diving has got to be more dangerous than unlicensed church food.

Chesson said if her church had to choose between serving meals and breaking the law, they would break the law. "Our agenda is to feed the hungry. We're going to feed the hungry. That's it. We're going to feed them."

I wanted to ask the health department why she shouldn't, but by the time I asked they were getting bad publicity. One headline read, "The Grinch in Fairfax County."

"I got up and saw my morning newspaper and was horrified," said Gerald Connolly, the Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

"So what was the health department thinking?" I asked him.

"I don't think they were thinking," Connolly said. "Not a single individual came down with any food-borne-related illness."

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