Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Food Proves to Be A Public Relations Bomb for Middletown


Spread across the front page of the Hartford Courant this morning is a story of Middletown's effort to ban Food Not Bombs from sharing meals with Middletown residents every Sunday morning in front of the Buttonwood Tree. It is now a statewide story, and will likely be picked up by the national press. What a picture it paints of Middletown.

Sharing food with folks who need and appreciate it, especially food which would have been discarded (American waste 100 billion pounds of food every year), seems like a decent idea. Young, enthusiastic Wesleyan students willing to engage residents who most of us have never met, and some of us would not like to even think about, are being told that they are breaking the law because they don't use sneeze-guards. These students are engaging the community, forming community, and the adults in town are sneering at their effort.

Imagine what the rest of the world is thinking.

And Middletown, sticking to a selective and rigid interpretation of the law, is prosecuting this band of "hippies" because it is presumed they are dumpster diving for their food (which they are not). I've helped them prepare a meal, and I've found them to be decent, friendly, funny and concerned young men and women who may not even be thinking about the gospel, but their walking the talk when it comes to "loving your neighbor."

Middletown is making the case that they are trying to protect the people who are being served the food. Though they don't seem to share an equal concern, when it comes to sneeze-guards, at bake sales, church dinners, lemonade stands and other Main Street events. A lot of watermelon was sliced and distributed during the recent road race on Main Street with nary a sneeze-guard in sight.

Some of these events, church dinners for example, are licensed and food is prepared in inspected kitchens, but one can assume that inspections at the actual dinners are few and far between because of a lack of manpower.

We have to be happy that our health inspectors have a strong and enthusiastic concern for food safety and food consumers, but in the case of Food Not Bombs, where there has never been a problem with tainted food, city hall might easily look in the other direction. It's not difficult to think of other times city hall looks the other way, on any number of other issues in town, (say the excessive noise issue when hundreds of illegally mufflered motorcycles gather on Main Street).

Finally, because Food Not Bombs has asked for a state hearing, the city has felt obliged to hire legal representation for the health inspectors. That costs real money. Tax dollars. To fight a fight which hardly seems worth fighting.

So what has Middletown gotten for its effort? A reputation as a town that would take the food out of the mouths of the hungry. A reputation as a town which is making a stink about doing something that Jesus recommended - feeding the hungry.

I guest if JC showed up on Foss Hill and recited the beatitudes while multiplying loaves and fishes, he might get a citation for distributing food unsafely.


Sherri said...

it's a shame that Middletown is wasting tax payers money on this and it's not even an issue. I do agree there are many other things "wrong" and the City needs to put the effort into those items and let the students feed the hungry. Where is their case, has someone sued the City due to getting sick? What is the City's argument? or justification?

Meghan Quinn said...

Thank you for focusing on the hypocrisy and double standards of the authorities in regards to this issue, and the negative attitude that some members of the public tend to take about this particular case. I have to say, everyone I've talked to about this case agrees that Food Not Bombs is in the right and that a community picnic should not be regulated. But I will sometimes see comments on local news websites that ridicule the efforts of Food Not Bombs and try to belittle the Wesleyan students who are volunteers, just for the sake of their being college students or because of the way they look or whatever.

These Wesleyan students are conscientious members of the Middletown community who honestly care about issues of poverty and hunger and about the individuals who they meet every Sunday and know by name. I would like to see any critics trolling internet message boards to belittle their efforts to come out and actually do something to help.

For the most part it does seem like the community has been supportive of Food Not Bombs. The case against FNB is nonsensical - there are many other groups that share food without a license. I think people see that. And this case has already reached the national news. Barbara Ehrenreich mentioned Middletown briefly in an op-ed recently in the New York Times, “Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor?” The New York Times has a circulation of over 1 million – and that's just print.

Anonymous said...

All FNB has to do is get a freakin' permit!But that means going to "The Man" for help-and Wesleyan is not bowing to "The Man's" rules.The City has not been sued-yet. Maybe, just maybe, because "The Man's" rules work. Just get a freakin' permit!

Anonymous said...

Don't underestimate the fact that harassing FnB pays double-time for Middletown Health enforcers to be there on a Sunday.

Why did our Municipal know-it-alls need a lawyer?

Anonymous said...

One case of Salmonella and it will no longer be "Food not Bombs" but something else. If someone gets sick who picks up the liability? Since most of the people getting the food are poor I am guessing health insurance is not available to them. If "Food not Bombs" makes people sick, with the best of intentions, who in that organization will pay the hospital costs for their acts of kindness?No one is opposed to providing food for the needy and Middletown has done more than its fair share in accomodating these situations. Instead of searching for negative headlines "Food not Bombs" should act intelligently and conform to basic health requirements in performing their "good" acts. Good intentions don't stop diarreah and vomiting caused by Salmonella.

Anonymous said...

Can't the Food Not Bombs people just have a "family picnic"? Then maybe there would be no legal involvement from the City?

Anonymous said...

All this talk about someone getting sick and suing is just scare tactics. In 30 years, no one has gotten sick at FNB.

What would you do if you were at a church potluck and got sick?

Stop blaming FNB, it's the city officials that are wasting everyone's time and money.

David Sauer said...

I am not in favor of Ed's suggestion that the Health Department just look the other way. I don't like the idea of the Health Department, or anyone else at city hall, deciding that some people don't have to comply with the rules because it for a good cause. That leads to breaking or ignoring rules because it is for a nice guy, or involves a life-long resident. One of the biggest complaints that you read on this blog is the perception that people are not treated equally, that different rules apply depending on who you are or who you know. The alleged golf course back room deal is an example. Isn't this really the same issue?

I would suggest that the city consider changing its ordinances so that FNB does not need a permit. This can be done. For example, the State Health Code exempts bed and breakfasts under a certain number of beds from getting a permit. Middletown's health code, Section 169-3 defines who is required to get a permit (the ordinance is available online from the City website, click on "government"; then "charter and ordinances"). Why couldn't we change that section to provide that the section does not apply to individuals or non-profit organizations who are providing unadulterated food to members of the public without charge, in furtherance of civic or religious beliefs, provided that a sign is conspicuously displayed stating that the food is prepared in premises not licensed or inspected by the City of Middletown. The phrase unalterated food is used in several town health codes to describe food that is clean, safe, properly cooked, etc. It wouldn't mean that organizations can only serve organic vegan items.

I think that the City council should consider such a change. It would then at least open the issue up for a discussion and clear up whether the city and the citizens feel that it is necessary to have the ordinance as it is currently written, or if we would be better off allowing FNB to continue what they have been doing for many years.

Making the change would have a couple of benefits. It would allow FNB to continue their work, which I believe the overwhelming majority of Middletown's citizens want. It would also send a powerful message that this City is interested in helping those less fortunate among us, not "sneering at the effort" as Ed wrote.

DJ Cheshire Cat said...

Can anyone suggest proactive, non incendiary means in which we can support Food Not Bombs? For instance, I'm at a loss as to whom I can contact in the local and state government on this issue to show my support.

I am not unsympathetic to the city's position, but I feel that this is a case when the letter of the law interferes with the spirit of the law.

Anonymous said...

What I read in news articles is that all this was caused by an anonymous complaint. Might the complaint have been from an area restaurant? I know, how cynical of me.

Over six months ago, I went down to City Hall, not anonymously, to ask them to investigate what seemed to me an unsanitary situation at the remodelled Stop and Shop in Middletown. By the way, I did bring my concern to the attention of store personnel first. The self-serve containers in the deli section with olives and marinated mushrooms and mozzarella balls, etc. are right at toddler height with only a flip-up lid to protect the contents from little hands dipping in and perhaps leaving little toys in there or whatever might strike their fancy. This seems to me a much more likely health hazzard than what FnB are doing yet nothing has changed. They didin't get a cease and disist order. I haven't bought anything from those containers since they lowered them. I would caution you to do the same.

Anonymous said...

There have been some good suggestions raised by a few folks here. I would recommend contacting the mayor and health dept. to let them know how you feel.

Mayor Sebastian N. Giuliano
(860) 344-3400

Director of Middletown Health Dept.
Dr. Joseph Havlicek
(860) 344-3474

Anonymous said...

30 years of Food not Bombs. Not in Middletown. It is not a legitimate organization but an adhoc feel good group made up of whomever wants to join at the moment. Next year it will be something else. Meanwhile there is nothing scary about talking about Salmonella. There is something scary about getting Salmonella - even from well intentioned people. We have had situations where people have gotten sick at Church potluck or spaghetti suppers. We had identifiable caterers who had insurance who would be responsible and the Churches are legal organizations that would be responsible. Food not Bombs is neither. No insurance- just good intentions. Grow up and conform so your good intentions won't be harmful should you not wash your hands.

Anonymous said...

food not bombs does not serve meat or dairy, greatly reducing the chance of someone getting sick.

i also think that its no one's business to regulate food not bombs except for those who take part, if the people who eat food not bombs have an issue with it, let the bring it up. however from my observation they are all big fans of the program, and were very angry when the health department took the food away.

Anonymous said...

You can get salmonella from a melon. The issue is not what food is being served -rather what happens if someone becomes ill from the food. The public delivery of food becomes a regulated situation when it is a constant recurring event especially on public property. Why not invite your friends to your home and give them food not bombs at home? Then you won't be regulated.