Homeless may eat from dumpsters, but they deserve a higher standard
For 18 months, Michelle Myers and a small army of volunteers prepared food in their homes and gave it out each Sunday to more than 100 poor and homeless people at Kitchener City Hall.
Then a few weeks ago, Myers said, a food inspector came by and said her offerings of pasta, muffins, sandwiches and salads were not safe to give away.
Not because anything was specifically wrong with it, but because it hadn’t been prepared in a kitchen inspected by public health officials.
Myers was, and is, terribly upset. She has cancelled the food giveaways, says she feels “mentally exhausted,” and misses the “beautiful” interaction with fellow volunteers and with the people she was helping to feed.
There are plenty of inspected or commercial kitchens in churches and restaurants in downtown Kitchener. But Myers’ group, A Hand Up for the Homeless, had no funds to rent the space or pay for insurance.
She was offered free use of a commercial inspected kitchen by a friend who owns a restaurant in Cambridge. But she couldn’t figure out how to get the hot food back to Kitchener inexpensively without the temperature dropping below acceptable levels.
So she packed it in.
“It breaks my heart,” she said. “It’s a huge thing, that food for them.” She feels frustrated, too. “They’re eating out of Dumpsters,” she said. “So come on with one degree, or two degrees!”
Of course the public health inspectors don’t see it that way.
“We recognize the need to protect the health of all residents,” said Aldo Franco, manager of health protection and investigation for the Region of Waterloo.
Food offered to the public, even if it’s free, must be prepared in an inspected kitchen that meets safety standards.
Of course kitchens in homes that are not inspected can be spotlessly clean, Franco said, but you never know. It depends on the homeowner. “There could be children in diapers” in the food preparation area, he said. “There could be animals.”
The risk never goes away, but the inspected kitchen makes it lower, Franco said.
“We want to make sure we minimize the risk,” he said. “These (homeless) folks are in a tough spot. They’re a vulnerable population and more at risk of potentially getting sick.”
It’s rare to find a story that’s equally compelling on both sides, but this is one. The grassroots association and the health inspectors are each trying to protect a fragile group.
It also gives a glimpse at the blurry line between unofficial dinner party and formal “food premise.” If you have a community potluck supper open to all in the neighbourhood, Franco said, it’s OK to make the food at home because it’s a private event.
But if you’re a vegan group and you say “All are welcome” when you advertise your potluck or offer samples of meatless dishes, that’s a whole different story. Even if the food is free.
Perhaps A Hand Up for the Homeless should give out invitations.
Correction: In a column earlier this week about the Progressive Conservative party in Cambridge, I gave a wrong date for the meeting at which the candidate will be nominated. In fact, that meeting has yet to be scheduled by the riding association.