“Everybody was ready to stand up for themselves,” Nellie McCool, a volunteer with Free Hot Soup Kansas City, told the Star. “We’re prepared to face the law.”
The conflict occurred on Nov. 4, when inspectors descended on the picnics that Free Hot Soup KC organizes at parks across the city every week.
“It looked ugly Sunday,” the Star reported last week. “Home-cooked chili, stacks of foil-wrapped sandwiches, vats of soup and other food prepared by volunteers with Free Hot Soup Kansas City were dumped in bags and soaked in bleach to make sure no one went back to try to recover it.”
The city’s health department said in a statement at the time that it had received multiple complaints about the gatherings, and said that the events were not properly permitted.
“The group organizes volunteers to prepare food at homes and transports the food in personal vehicles to serving locations,” it said. “The food is not kept at required temperature for food safety.”
It said that Free Hot Soup KC “chose not to obtain required permitting to follow safe food handling practices.”
Kansas City Director of Health Rex Archer told the Star that homeless people faced a danger from food-borne illness.
But Free Hot Soup KC and other groups that work with the homeless were sharply critical of the city’s moves.
“To us that’s discrimination,” group administrator Shelbi Meisch, 38, told The Washington Post. “It’s like saying there’s a problem, we want to sweep it under the rug and get rid of it. These are human beings and they deserve to be heard and seen.”
Eric Garbison of the Cherith Brook Catholic Worker House told the Star that this amounted to a “criminalization of people who are homeless and the people who support them.”
Garbison connected the crackdown on the picnics to other enforcement aimed at the homeless population, such as banning shopping carts and streetside panhandling, “to make illegal all things that make the homeless experience and give authorities the power to remove them.”
The city did not arrest anyone or issue citations, Meisch said.
Free Hot Soup KC was started in 2015 with the mission of providing meals cooked by volunteers to homeless people throughout the city. It has grown to include other services but remains an all-volunteer group in the hundreds that distributes food multiple times a week. Its Sunday afternoon “picnics,” as they are called, which take place at four parks in the city, are the biggest event of the week, Meisch said.
But health inspectors knew where to find the group after monitoring its social media feeds, according to the Star. The city officials showed up with police at all four locations in what seemed to be a coordinated sting, Meisch said.
The complaints that had spurred the city into action had come to the health department from a local neighborhood group, Meisch said and the Star reported. The Kansas City Health Department did not return a request for comment. It has prominently posted an information sheet on its website about its decision to crack down on Free Hot Soup KC’s “Illegal operation.”
“This is not about money,” the information sheet says.
It says the group was in violation of Kansas City food code, which says that a person cannot operate a food establishment without a valid permit.
It defended its use of bleach, saying that it was only at one location and that investigators had taken the step only because someone at the site had threatened to remove the food from the trash.
“This is a practice used by the Department and public health jurisdictions throughout the country when there is a direct threat to the public health by potentially contaminated food,” it said.
“The Health Department was unable to determine the sanitary conditions of [the] location in which the food was prepared, food safety knowledge of those preparing the food, and the cooking, storing, and transportation temperatures of the food prior to the arrival at the service location,” it said. “Due to these factors, the food was considered to be unsafe for human consumption.”
And it warned that “future incidents may result in citations and court appearances.”
In an editorial Sunday, the Kansas City Star proposed a solution that could potentially appease both sides that didn’t involve bleaching the food.
It wrote that the Health Department could send a food safety inspector “not as an enforcer but as an adviser.”
"Those city employees could oversee food distribution, alerting volunteers when food might not be safe,” the editorial board wrote. “The Free Hot Soup volunteers would agree not to serve food that hasn’t been prepared and handled safely. Citations would not be issued. Then, during the next six months, a handful of Free Hot Soup volunteers would take free food handling courses offered by the Health Department. At the end of that period, every event would have to include at least one certified food handler, or face cancellation.”
Meisch said that she believes the group has a right to distribute home-cooked food to the homeless, saying it would be unfeasible for the volunteers to comply with the restrictions the city imposes on permitted food handlers.
“Do we want to get permits and food handlers cards? No, we feel it’s our individual right,” she said. “We’d like to see something change not just here, but nationally so that people become more aware of the issues surrounding homelessness and have more freedom to become active in their community to do something about it.”