Freshly Baked Handouts Forbidden in Fairfax

The Rev. Keary Kincannon's Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church will open its hypothermia shelter Friday under the new enforcement policy.
The Rev. Keary Kincannon's Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church will open its hypothermia shelter Friday under the new enforcement policy. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The casserole has been canned.

Under a tough new Fairfax County policy, residents can no longer donate food prepared in their homes or a church kitchen -- be it a tuna casserole, sandwiches or even a batch of cookies -- unless the kitchen is approved by the county, health officials said yesterday.

They said the crackdown on home-cooked meals is aimed at preventing food poisoning among homeless people.

But it is infuriating operators of shelters for the homeless and leaders of a coalition of churches that provides shelter and meals to homeless people during the winter. They said the strict standards for food served in the shelters will make it more difficult to serve healthy, hot meals to homeless people. The enforcement also, they said, makes little sense.

"We're very aware that a number of homeless people eat out of dumpsters, and mom's pot roast has got to be healthier than that," said Jim Brigl, chief executive of Fairfax Area Christian Emergency & Transitional Services. "But that doesn't meet the code."

County officials estimate that about 2,000 people are homeless in Fairfax. They are served by a network of shelters that swells to more than three dozen over the winter. FACETS, a Fairfax nonprofit group, coordinates most hypothermia shelters, which are set to open Friday in two dozen churches and other facilities.

The crackdown came after the county Health Department received a complaint about food being served to the homeless population that was bedding down at area houses of worship as part of the wintertime hypothermia program that began last year. Health officials took a closer look at what shelter residents ate and where the food came from.

Under state and county code, food served to the public must be prepared in a kitchen that has been inspected and certified by the county Health Department. Those standards are high: a commercial-grade refrigerator, a three-compartment sink to wash, rinse and sanitize dishes and a separate hand-washing sink, among other requirements.

Health officials said they weren't aware that food from unapproved kitchens was being served in homeless shelters.

"We're dealing with a medically fragile population . . . so they're more susceptible to food-borne illnesses than the general population," said Tom Crow, the county Health Department's director of environmental health. "We're trying to protect those people."

To help the churches prepare, the Health Department is waiving a $60 fee for certification and is holding additional safe food-handling classes for church volunteers. It is also giving churches that do not have approved kitchens a list of other houses of worship with such facilities.

"We're not trying to come across as being a heavy-handed government," Crow said.

Nonetheless, ministers from several of the two dozen participating churches said they oppose the crackdown and hope the Health Department backs off.

"We see the reason for being certified. They want to ensure people's health and safety," said the Rev. Keary Kincannon of Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church in the Alexandria portion of Fairfax County, which will open as a hypothermia shelter for four months starting Friday.

"On the other hand, how much do you have to be a stickler with that?" Kincannon asked. "What's more important: whether we're open to have somebody get in out of the cold and get a meal? There's kind of a balance there."

The Rev. Judy Fender of Burke United Methodist Church said 50 volunteers had been planning to cook beef stew, pork loin and other nutritious meals in the church kitchen when it hosts the hypothermia shelter Dec. 17 through 23.

But she found out this week that, because the kitchen is not Health Department-approved, it will have to prepare its food elsewhere.

It will be a logistical nightmare, Fender predicted, and is an insult to members who have cooked meals for years in the church kitchen without any problems.

"Why do [they] think that the traditional way of fixing a home-cooked meal is going to poison people off the street?" Fender asked.

She said she will appeal to a higher authority to get the Health Department to back off.

"I'm probably going to be in prayer that something is going to give on this," Fender said.

The crackdown has also hit year-round shelters. They prepare their food in on-site commercial kitchens, but many also accept donations from people who bring leftover food, home-baked goodies and other products to their doors.

"It takes the personal element out," said Pam Michell, executive director of New Hope Housing, which runs three year-round shelters and two wintertime programs.

"There's something about being able to bring a batch of brownies or being able to bring a home-cooked casserole to a shelter and feel like you're doing your part to end homelessness," she said. "That warm, fuzzy touch is going to go away."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company