The call came in late Monday afternoon. The caller reported that planned hypothermia centers for the homeless were going to be closed down by the Fairfax County Health Department because of concerns about preparation of food to be served to homeless clients. It sure sounded like a situation where no good deed goes unpunished!
A quick call to the director of the Health Department revealed that the State Health Code requires that food served to the public must be prepared in a commercial kitchen with a certified food manager on duty. The trouble was that most of the church congregations who had volunteered to take turns housing and feeding the homeless had neither commercial kitchens nor certified food managers. The first hypothermia shelter was scheduled to open in four days!
After a number of conversations with health inspectors, non-profit social service organizers, and church vestry members, a solution was found: the individual churches could apply for a temporary food service permit, and the Health Department would waive the $60 certification fee and also would provide additional food preparation safety classes for volunteers. By Friday evening, when the first hypothermia center in Mason District opened for business, the food and shelter provided to about 35 homeless men and women went forward without a hitch. Pot roast, baked potatoes, and peas were on the menu, and donated baked goods were served for dessert. (Home-baked goods, such as cookies, cakes, brownies, and cupcakes, are considered low-risk foods and may be served in the shelters.) One client even received a small birthday cake when it was discovered that her birthday was the next day. It had been years since anyone remembered her birthday, bringing tears to clients and volunteers alike!
The furor has died down now, and the churches, and their volunteers, will be able to move forward through the winter as they had planned. Work will continue at the state and local level to find a resolution to the requirements of the Health Code in this kind of situation where all anyone wanted to do was help the homeless. Protecting the public health is important, but so is helping the homeless. We ought to be able to do both, simply and rationally.
Today is the 65th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which signaled the beginning of the American participation in World War II. There are few Pearl Harbor veterans left, but today is a good time to reflect on the valiant sacrifices of those veterans who served our country then, and now. Thanks to all those who wear the uniform of the United States armed forces.