Food for thought

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As the acute need of providing food and shelter to the homeless and hungry population in Richmond grows, several philanthropic individuals have stepped up to the plate to try and fill the need.

In recent months, several attempts to create food programs for the needy and homeless have been shut down by the Madison County Health Department.

One of those programs was created by Neal Sears.

For the past several years, Sears had been cooking meals in his home and then transporting those hot meals to areas such as Turpin Drive, Smith Village, and on Main Street near Family Dollar in order to feed the hungry in Richmond.

Sears called it the Sober Cooking iniative.

In November, Sears' activities came to halt.

According to Sears, the Madison County Health Department (MCHD) showed up at his home and gave him a notice to cease his food program immediately.

Sears was informed his food program was, in fact, against the law and the notice cited statutes and regulations from the Kentucky Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act KRS 217.001- 217.998 and the State Food Code: 902 KAR 45:005.

Sears' initiative was not the first of its kind to be shut down by the health department.

Last year, a community fridge placed outside of a former downtown restaurant was also forced to cease operations by the MCHD, who cited the same statutes.

Simply put, these statues state food can not be provided to the public out of a home kitchen without proper permitting, in accordance with federal and state law.

Employees of the MCHD said the notices to those food programs were for the protection of the public.

"Home-prepared foods given or sold to the public from your home is not allowed, it's strictly prohibited," said Woody Arvin, Madison County Health Department environmentalist. "No one is allowed to prepare food in a home kitchen, and there are several reasons for that. They are not permitted, they aren't regulated, you don't know the conditions of that house.

"Are they changing their kids on the countertops while they are preparing food? Do they have cats and dogs running around? Do they have hot water? Do they have a way to wash their hands? A lot of things go into play. There are very few areas in the United States that allow home-prepared foods to be offered to the public. You just can't do that," he added.

Sears said in the years he had been serving the public through his group, The Kentucky Crusade, no one has become sick.

After receiving the notice from the health department, a post was made on social media about the situation.

The post received negative criticism from the public, who questioned why someone with intentions of feeding the needy would be "shut down."

Some comments suggested the health entity was power-hungry, or trying to control others.

According to Arvin, that is simply not that case.

Their goal, he said, is to educate the public as well as regulate and to "protect the basics of public health safety."

"Contrary to popular belief, we don't go out here and make up laws and regulations. The intent of our regulations is that we operate under the 2013 FDA food code and the intent of a model food code is uniformity and consistency. I feel what I try to do, is be consistent and fair, and we always like to think of ourselves as educators first, regulators second," Arvin said.

In addition, members of the public asked why a church or charitable organization could serve food, but not an individual like Sears.

According to Arvin, and in accordance with the Food Safety Branch of the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, churches and benevolent groups which provide to the needy may do so without being permitted, or inspected on a regular basis, if the foods are in a package form, from commercially-approved sources, from permitted retail food establishments, and are in safe and wholesome condition.

It is recommended, however, these groups be provided with a copy of the state's food code as a basic guideline.

Retail food establishments, organizations, associations and individuals who donate safe and "apparently wholesome foods to nonprofit organizations for the distribution to those in need" are protected from civil and criminal liability under provisions of KRS 413.248 as amended by House Bill 68 in 2006.

Despite the complexity of the proper channels, Sears said he is not discouraged.

He has began to work in cooperation with the health department to receive permits and guidance on the specifics of a commercial kitchen in order to continue his food program.

Arvin said after a commercial location is determined, an up-to-code kitchen must have some basic components.

These components include: a three compartment sink big enough to wash the largest piece of equipment, drain boards, hand sinks located in washing, cooking, and food prep areas, restrooms, a mop sink, a grease trap, ventilation system, and a hood system for grill.

Not only do individuals attempting to get their permit need to go through the health department, they also must be inspected by plumbing, codes enforcement, utilities and the fire marshal, Arvin said.

In very few cases, Arvin said, personal residences are approved by the health department to serve food to the public.

Those that are approved, usually have a separate or detached food prep area located away from their personal-use kitchen.

"It made me upset that we had to shut down Sober Cooking and that we would no longer be able to serve hot meals, because I didn't realize that I had to have a commercial kitchen and paperwork to do that," Sears said. "Eventually, I am going to have those things, and without this, it would have been way down the road. That put a pep in my step, and had this not have happened, it would have been dragged out a lot longer. Now, I know what I need to do."

Sam Metcalfe, environmental program manager with MCDC, encouraged anyone in Madison County who has questions in regards to public food programs, to give them a call.

"That is our job. It all boils down to the public's safety," Metcalfe said. "It is not like we sit there and look for people. You just have to do it the right way and not out of your house. We just don't want people to get sick."

According to Arvin, there are 48 million food borne illnesses a year which result in 125,000 hospitalizations. He said nearly 3,000 people die annually from a food-related illness. This is a decrease from 10 years ago when agencies were seeing 75 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths.

"We think, with our education, current food codes and things like that, we feel that has led to a drop in illnesses," Arvin said.

The health department follows a federal 2013 food code which the state of Kentucky complies with.

Arvin said, these are not new laws.

Following the creation of the United States Department of Agriculture by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, Teddy Roosevelt helped bolster food safety efforts in 1906.

Roosevelt started the Pure Food and Drug Act, which was inspired by work of journalist Upton Sinclair. Sinclair had gone undercover for a story about the horrid condition of Lithuanian immigrants working in the meatpacking industry dealing with rotten meat, vermin and rats.

In 1938, Franklin Roosevelt extended the regulation, and according to Arvin, this code is the updated version environmentalists operate under today, along with the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act.

"We want to get across that our goal is for people to consume safe foods in Madison County," Arvin stressed. "The basic protection of public health is what our goal is. It is hard for us to get that word out there because people want to look at us in a negative way, but our health department does so much for the health of the community in general. A lot of needed services go through here."

In regards to helping feed those in need, Arvin said the best case scenario is for cooks to find a place which already has a permit they can rent from. This can become a problem of liability, if someone does happen to get sick.

Arvin said the biggest recommendation for those wishing to feed those in need -- and be in compliance with food safety protocol -- would be to get together and see what services everyone can bring to the table.

"Some of these groups, if they could get together... and try to get some kind of community kitchen where they could all participate in it. Churches, when they remodel -- I have practically begged -- get your kitchen, where if you decide you ever want a permit, you already have your stuff in place," Arvin said.

For more information, contact the health department environmental branch at 859-626-4241.

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