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Health laws halt hot meal program

Church asked to stop after nine men fall ill

Russell Ricks, 58, a resident of the New England Chapter for Homeless Veterans, appreciates the effort to serve hot meals to the homeless. Russell Ricks, 58, a resident of the New England Chapter for Homeless Veterans, appreciates the effort to serve hot meals to the homeless. (Dina Rudick/ Globe Staff)
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / March 8, 2010

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For eight years parishioners at the United Church of Christ in Medfield cooked up hearty batches of chili and chicken soup and brought them to the streets of Boston, handing out bowls of sustenance to the city’s homeless.

But the Saturday evening Soup To Go ministry, however welcomed by the men and women who took comfort in the hot, home-cooked meals, was running afoul of public health laws. Not only was some of the food prepared in volunteers’ homes, rather than a licensed kitchen, it was handed out without a permit.

Health officials cracked down last month after nine homeless men who ate a church meal complained of gastrointestinal illness. Officials were enforcing a state law requiring that all charitable food programs be inspected and licensed by local health boards. For now, the church group cannot distribute hot food, although it will continue to hand out sandwiches and packaged food.

Thomas Goodfellow, assistant commissioner of health at Boston’s Inspectional Services Department, said restrictions are necessary to ensure that food provided to the homeless is safe.

“The public has a right to know where the food is coming from,’’ he said. “If you want to protect the public health, everyone has to follow the same rules. Donated food must come from a licensed kitchen.’’

Advocates for the homeless and public health officials say the long standing rules are sensible protection against food-borne illnesses in a vulnerable population.

But some parishioners are concerned that the government regulations, however well-meaning, block their efforts to feed the hungry, particularly at a time of growing need.

The church’s food program came to light last month, when nine men at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans complained of illness after eating chili distributed by the church group.

State and local health officials were notified, and city inspectors determined the food had been served illegally. The shelter also passed a health inspection.

Brian Gallant, Medfield’s health agent, said the group has primarily distributed food prepared in the church kitchen, which is regularly inspected and has a permit.

But volunteers were also handing out food prepared in individual homes, he said. The chili was prepared at the church, he said.

“They are doing good work, and we’re not trying to prevent them from doing it,’’ Gallant said. “We just need to make sure everyone’s protected.’’

Gallant said he planned to meet with some of the volunteers and would stress sanitation provisions, such as wearing gloves and maintaining adequate temperature.

Anita Barry, who directs the Infectious Disease Bureau at the Boston Public Health Commission, said that the cause of the illnesses was not precisely determined but that at least some cases were probably food-related. The Boston area has also recently been hit by the highly contagious stomach flu, norovirus.

Art Davies, a chief organizer of the food program, said parishioners are disappointed the program has been curtailed but have consulted with local health official s on ways to continue their efforts.

“We should be able to work things out fairly quickly,’’ he said.

Davies said parishioners enjoy delivering the meals personally and have struck up relationships with many of the recipients. Donating nonperishable food to a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, he said, wouldn’t be the same.

Yet Davies said he appreciated the thinking behind the health regulations and the need to protect the homeless, who often have health problems that make them particularly susceptible to illnesses caused by contaminated food.

“I understand where they are coming from,’’ he said.

Outside the veterans shelter yesterday, people said they missed the hot meals and said it was a shame officials interfered with a good thing.

“When it’s cold, it’s good to get a hot meal in your stomach,’’ said Russell Ricks, a 58-year-old Army veteran who works part time as a dishwasher. “Chili, chicken soup - people looked forward to it. They are nice people. They bring clothes, toothpaste, even gifts at Christmas time.’’

Ricks said the illnesses were not serious and that he doubted the church’s food was to blame. A tall man with a gray beard and bad cough, Ricks said people appreciated the meals and were touched by parishioners’ kindness.

People staying at the shelter, he said, are typically getting enough to eat and aren’t desperate for the hot meals. But for those who live outside and come to the shelter for the Saturday meals, the food is pivotal.

Other shelter residents said there is some risk in eating any perishable food, whether served at a restaurant or in one’s home.

“There’s no guarantee,’’ said one middle-aged man, who asked to remain anonymous. “If you go to a cookout, or get invited to someone’s house, it’s the same thing. Nothing’s completely safe.’’

But William Todd, a 60-year-old Air Force veteran who has stayed at the shelter for about a year, said he worries about donated food and likes to know where his meals came from.

“I wouldn’t trust that myself,’’ he said of the church meals, saying he had never eaten one.

In recent years, a number of US cities have passed ordinances restricting groups from sharing food with the homeless, advocates say.

While some of these measures seek to deter the homeless from congregating, many are good-faith attempts to protect their health, they say.

“There is not a consensus in the homeless community whether it’s supportable to feed people on the street,’’ said Neil Donovan, who directs the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C.

“But there is a consensus that safe public health practices need to extend to the homeless population.’’

In Virginia a few years ago, plans to prohibit shelters from accepting home-cooked food were quickly overturned after sparking widespread resentment.

But health officials and advocates for the homeless said that such laws are common, although they are rarely enforced.

Donovan, who used to work at Boston’s Pine Street Inn, said food programs can help break the ice with homeless people, making them more open to assistance. But they can also backfire.

“Some people believe handing out food is a very effective engagement tool for people who are shelter-resistant,’’ he said.

“But others say if you meet everyone’s needs on the street, it’s much harder to get them indoors.’’