By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006
Fire up those ovens! The casserole is back.
The chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors yesterday nixed plans to bar residents from cooking food in home and church kitchens and donating it to homeless shelters. He blamed overzealous county employees for a policy that made Fairfax the subject of nationwide ridicule.
"For goodness sake," Chairman Gerald E. Connolly said yesterday, "the tradition of church suppers -- whether for the homeless or for the congregation -- goes back hundreds of years. We're not going to outlaw that in Fairfax County."
Connolly said that he was unaware that county health officials were cracking down on home-cooked meals prepared in uncertified kitchens and that he "hit the roof" when he first learned of it in a story in Tuesday's Washington Post.
Citing the state's food code, health officials had informed homeless programs and a coalition of nonprofit groups and churches that runs a winter-shelter program that food, including sandwiches, stews and soups, had to be prepared in county-approved commercial kitchens.
Virginia Department of Health regulations require that food served to the public come from certified kitchens, with a few exceptions. "Occasional" dinners hosted by churches, school groups and the like are exempt, according to Virginia law. There also is the "bake sale exemption" that allows groups such as youth sport teams and PTAs to sell homemade baked goods at fundraisers.
Health officials said that while there have been no reported cases of food-borne illnesses among those who consumed home-cooked foods in shelters, few food poisonings are reported to authorities.
Unlike health officials, Connolly contends that the code does not apply to the shelters because they are not commercial operations like restaurants.
Jim Brigl, chief executive of Fairfax Area Christian Emergency & Transitional Services, an organizer of the winter-shelter program in area churches, praised Connolly's decision to reverse the ban.
"We've never objected to trying to take measures to make sure that food is safe," Brigl said. "But we just think that regulatory bodies have a really hard time dealing with something where you think outside the box, and this is an outside-the-box program."
The Christian Defense Coalition and advocates for the homeless in Fairfax had planned a protest for today. Volunteers were planning to bake cookies in home kitchens and deliver them to homeless shelters around the county.
In light of Connolly's action, the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, executive director of the Christian Defense Coalition, called off the protest yesterday.
"I think they recognized how absolutely bizarre this [policy] was," Mahoney said.
In dozens of comments on the Washington Post's Web site, readers vented indignation over the ban on home-cooked food, calling it "idiocy," the product of a "bungling bureaucracy" and accusing the county of trying to block the faith community's efforts to help the poor.
Some also took umbrage at the notion that their churches' cuisine would be considered unsafe.
"I have been eating at my church function for YEARS and have NEVER received food poisoning, but I have eaten at several restaurants and have received food poisoning," said one posting. "Tell me whats wrong with this picture??"
Other hunger groups and area restaurants rallied to help the county shelters and churches that are set to start hosting the homeless in the winter-shelter program tonight. The D.C. Central Kitchen offered to provide food from its commercial kitchen to some shelters, and area restaurants had offered to help.
Under the church program, which operates for four months, the homeless are invited to spend nights in area churches, where they receive hot dinners and breakfasts.
The crackdown came after the county health department received a complaint about home-cooked food being served to the homeless.
Health officials said they were not aware that food from unapproved kitchens was being served in homeless shelters. Officials waived a $60 fee for churches that needed to get their kitchens certified and held additional food-handling classes for church volunteers.