Activists still not happy with Philadelphia’s gentler outdoor serving rule

    Over the objections of those who feed the hungry, the Philadelphia Board of Health adopted a rule that requires those who serve food outdoors to obtain permits.  The move comes a week after Mayor Michael Nutter announced he wants to move all such efforts indoors.

    Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz said in devising the regulation approved Thursday, the city realized there was an ingrained inequality in food safety laws in the city. “It became clear to us as we looked at the effort of the city to protect food for those people who pay for their food, that the city wasn’t putting the same investment to protecting the food of people who received it for free.,” Schwarz said. “And that irony was not lost either on the (Department of Health) or on the Board of Health.”

    When the regulations were originally proposed last month, many activists thought the permits would be used to keep people from serving on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. After Mayor Nutter introduced a ban on serving food in public parks last week, that point is seemingly moot. But the controversy over the rule has not died down.

    Thursday’s board meeting had to be moved to a different room after activists from Occupy Philadelphia interrupted Schwarz’s reading of the revised regulation with call-and-response chanting.

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    “It’s not even a question of whether I think this law will be effective or enforced,” said Occupy’s Larry Swetman. “It’s more of a question of the process by which this happened, and the process was that this was handed down on high by the power structure.”

    Three members of the Occupy movement eventually were arrested.

    The rules were made less strict than the version originally introduced last month, but Jay Barbieri, who serves food on the Parkway once a week with his Fairmount church, said the permits still represent an unnecessary barrier for people who will continue to serve food in legal locations outside. “On one hand I don’t at all argue with the health side of the ruling, where, hey, here’s some training. I think it’s great,” Barbieri said. “But to say that you need a permit to do the good deed, that just is pretty tough……I would argue, give me a certificate that says, ok, I’ve taken your course, I’ve done everything right, and I’m certified to go do it.”

    The new rule requires groups to tell the health department only the general location where they will serve food, rather than a specific spot as previously proposed. Schwarz stressed that the department would not use the permits to ferret out people defying the Mayor’s new ban.

    “The way that this is now written doesn’t ask, where will you be tonight or tomorrow night” Schwarz said. “It says ‘Give us a cross street and a ten block radius will be what’s assumed.’ We believe that cross street and ten block radius gives wiggle room to everyone.”

    The rule no longer requires home or church kitchens to be inspected, as the original rule did, or groups to submit specific menu items to the board of health in advance — just whether food to be served would be hot or cold.

    The rule does require hand-washing stations at every serving location and at least one person handling food to go through the city’s free, two-hour food safety course.

    Commissioner Schwarz said fines will be levied only on groups after six violations.

    He expects to start enforcing the rule at the beginning of May.

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