Arguments about food safety rules should consider the homeless people being served

    Many voices are chiming in on a proposed Philadelphia Board of Health recommendation to regulate outdoor food service for the homeless — but what about the people who rely on this free distribution? What is their take on enacting such laws?

    A recommendation by the Philadelphia Board of Health to regulate outdoor feeding has garnered a lot of attention lately.

    The organization Food Not Bombs has been particularly vocal about these kinds of regulations nationally, as they distribute food to thousands of homeless people in American cities every year. In June 2011, members of the group were jailed in Orlando, Fla., after violating a recently passed city ordinance requiring permits for distributing free food to large groups.

    Many voices are chiming in on these proposed laws: city officials, food distribution volunteers — and there will even be a waiting period to vote on the Philadelphia ordinance so citizens can submit comments about it online. But what about the people who eat the food from free distributions? What is their take on enacting such laws?

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    An article in the UK’s Daily Mail on the arrests in Orlando last June was accompanied by photos of actual food distributions. One picture shows five teenagers handling food without gloves. In another picture, groups of volunteers, all without gloves, touch their hair, while at their feet are pots of food and reams of Styrofoam cups.

    On the Food Not Bombs blog, in a Feb. 13 post requesting donations to continue their fight against food distribution ordinances, one of the organization’s founders quoted Daytona Beach activist Kathy Mitro: “There is no right way to give out food,” she proclaimed in all caps. “There is only giving out all the food you can.”

    Doyle Parker, who has been transient for the past few years since losing his house during a divorce, came to Philadelphia a few weeks ago. He’s eaten food given out for free in this city and others, and he has seen many of these laws popping up recently.

    “You have to ask yourself, why now?” he said. “Are they concerned about health issues? Taking food from the street is akin to caveat emptor —” Doyle stopped himself suddenly mid-sentence and his expression turned briefly sullen. “Kind of.”

    While Doyle doesn’t actually purchase the food given out, there is that “buyers beware” feeling amongst those who need to take handouts. Doyle, along with every other person I spoke with, has received food past the expiration date at some point during a free food distribution. To have to consider eating food that could be spoiled and make you ill (becoming dehydrated from stomach issues can be fatal for any person), or eating nothing at all, is not a decision any person should have to make.

    Food Not Bombs has been challenging laws for the regulation of food distribution in Orlando and Philadelphia. The proposed Philadelphia city ordinance and the one enacted in Orlando have some very important differences:

    The Orlando ordinance does not mention anything about safe food handling, but the proposed Philadelphia ordinance contains five separate regulations for safe handling.
    Orlando requires payments for permits and mandates punishments for violations. Philadelphia’s proposal does not mandate that violations would result in arrests or fines.
    The Philadelphia ordinance would provide free trainings for volunteers, and does not exclude participation by anyone. Such trainings might be used as tools by these hard-working volunteers to offer to the people they serve as well as to educate themselves further in their work.
    Although, in Philadelphia, menus would have to be submitted as early as a year in advance with no mention of alternatives or supplementing reports for unexpected menu changes.

    Doyle continued to express concern over the proposed regulations scaring off possible volunteers, bringing all distributions to a stop. Another man, who asked only to be named as Theodore, offered a different perspective. He sat with us at our table at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Central Branch at 19th and Vine Streets, directly across the street from some of the most popular food distribution spots.

    “I don’t think it [food distribution] would stop,” Theodore countered. “[The new rules] should encourage it ,because it would keep things safe.”

    Theodore has been without a home in Philadelphia for as long as five years. The evening we spoke he was at the library to warm up on his way to a place to stay the night. He had to leave at exactly 8 p.m., and he told me about some appointments he had the next day.

    “I want to just say,” he started as he stood up to leave, moving a heavy, loud, wooden chair in an area between the art and literature sections on the second floor, “not many people ask us questions. Some people don’t even talk to us.”

    Some people — like the ones who seek to regulate the lives of people like Doyle and Theodore through law, and even sometimes, while serving them food.

    Poet Aja Beech is a Creative Connector and a board member of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. She uses her poetry to mobilize a network of activists aiming to stop capital punishment.

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