TWO THOUSAND elderly residents of the District, most of whom don't have much money, have only one hot meal a day, which is provided by one of five private, nonprofit groups under contract by the city. And many of the places where those meals are served happen to be in violation of certain city regulations. This news came from city auditor Matthew W. Waton, who has identified 61 local "feeding sites" - to use the lovely parlance - that do not come up standards. The sites in question include 33 churches, six senior-citizen centers, 14 apartment buildings and housing projects, two community centers and six other public facilities. Mr. Watson found that many of the dining sites did not have certificates of occupancy; were fire and safety hazards, did not comply with food-inspection regulations; and/or were in violation of zoning ordinances. Because such sites do not meet the local code, they are also in violation of federal standards, so the city may lose more than $1 million in federal funds for the hot-meal program.
The report also suggests some steps that should be taken to clean up the situation. These include changing some zoning ordinances and clarifying some health and sanitation regulations. The Office on Aging, which handles the hot-meal programs, has already eliminated some of the violations, and the city council is planning to take some action. But before the bureaucratic shuffle gets fully under way, we think it is appropriate to remind city hall that these dining sites are rather special, and overzealous steps to "correct" the situation could destroy the program.
This is not to say that all the violations are inconsequential - they're not. But it should be evident, for example, that these dining sites are not restaurants. As a matter of fact, at 58 of the 61 locations the meals are not prepared at all, but rather have been transported from elsewhere. The sponsors of the program, therefore, should not be forced to comply with costly and stringent restaurant regulations. City hall should also remember that the sponsors are all nonprofit organizations and have limited funds for special personnel training andno resources for minor building renovations. What's needed is a special set of standards to ensure the health and safety of the elderly while not forcing unreasonable requirements on the sponsors. Otherwise, the sponsors may close their doors, and 2,000 elderly people won't have hot meals at all.