Dec. 7, 2006— -- 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.
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."
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."
The rules are well intended, meant to make sure the public is safe, but rule makers forget that rules have unintended consequences.
"They've set up a situation where you have to have a $40,000 kitchen to feed someone who's going to get their food from questionable sources at best," said Fender.
"Looking at these rules, I'm overwhelmed," I told Chairman Connolly. "It just goes on and on for hundreds of pages… Do you ever think government has too many rules?"
"Absolutely," he said. "I think sometimes the rules overpower common sense."
"What if the health department had been around when Jesus was feeding the poor?"
"He might have been, you know, cited," Connolly said with a laugh.
Chairman Connolly quickly exempted the churches from the regulations.
I'm glad the churches feeding the poor squeaked past the food police this time, but bureaucratic rules kill all kinds of good things, always in the name of making things better.
In Santa Barbara, Calif., pedi-cabs -- small carriages pulled by a man on a bicycle -- used to take people around and often kept people out of cars late at night after they'd been drinking. But they no longer offer free rides, because new safety regulations drove them out of business.
In North Carolina, a couple of grannies were sewing quilts at home and then selling them… without a license. The government put a stop to this brazen criminality. The grannies are now out of business.
And just this week, the food police in my hometown decided to protect us from trans-fats, so they banned them from every restaurant. The New York Times called it, "a model for other cities."
George Mason University economist Donald Boudreaux saw that and said, "A model for what, exactly? For petty tyranny? What other voluntary activities will they ban? Clerking in convenience stores? Walking in the rain?"
"Bureaucracies don't understand exactly what's going on," said Chesson. "We don't want to have to break the law, OK?"
It's nice that Fairfax County rescinded the no-cooking rule, but why should free people have to beg for special dispensation?
"Fairfax is stepping back," said a homeless man we spoke to. "They're not going to enforce it… for now. This year… What about next year?"
Right. If you've got connections, or catch the attention of the media, you can bask in your government leader's forgiveness… but the rest of us are still stuck with all the rules. It makes me and some homeless people in Fairfax County want to tell all the regulators: Give me a break!