Today the Connecticut Department of Public Health issued a final ruling in Food Not Bombs' appeal of a cease and desist order issued against the group by the Middletown Health Department. In light of Middletown's recent decision to rescind the order, Commissioner Galvin determined that the appeal hearing, currently underway at the State Department of Public Health, is now moot.
“We are thrilled that the city has acknowledged that it must revoke the cease and desist order against us, which for six months criminalized the sharing of food during one of the most difficult economic times in American history,” stated Middletown Food Not Bombs volunteers. “This law enforcement action needlessly disrupted our regular gathering and sharing of food, and needlessly wasted food when officials shut down a meal and forcibly seized pots and pans of food,” according to the organization’s volunteers.
In April, the City of Middletown issued a Cease and Desist order against Middletown Food Not Bombs, arguing that the organization was violating state and municipal food licensing codes. Following the issuance of the order, the City handed out citations to two volunteers, arrested volunteer Abe Bobman, and confiscated food, pots and pans out of the hands of volunteers.
Middletown Food Not Bombs appealed the City’s cease and desist order to the State Department of Public Health. During the first day of two days of hearings at the State Department of Public Health in August, the organization argued that its food sharing activities were, much like a picnic or potluck, not subject to the state and city regulations. The organization also argued that the city had targeted its activities while ignoring similar activities occurring throughout the city of Middletown, in violation of the State and US Constitutions.
In early September, prior to the second day of hearings at the Department of Public Health, city health officials began visiting other organizations, including area churches and the St. Vincent De Paul soup kitchen, asking questions about their food distribution policies and making statements about the city’s impending second day of testimony.
In response, during the second day of the appeal hearing, Ron Krom, the Executive Director of the St. Vincent De Paul Place testified in support of Food Not Bombs, telling the hearing officer about his experience being visited by city officials. Krom provided testimony showing that the city was clearly and purposely targeting Food Not Bombs. Krom’s testimony included his statements that food was being prepared in home kitchens for distribution to the needy throughout the entire city, and had been for thirty years or more. The next day, the City Health Department paid a visit to Krom, handing him a legal notice and warning that he and church volunteers were violating the health code and would be subject to further legal action by the City.
Within days, the Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, got wind of the situation in Middletown and the laws being cited by the city to support its position, calling the situation “nuts.” A major legislative effort was almost immediately spearheaded by the Attorney General, as well as Middletown State Senator Paul Doyle, Middletown State Representative Matthew Lesser, Speaker of the House Chris Donovan, and Senate President Don Williams. These efforts resulted in a lightning-fast amendment to state law, Connecticut General Statute Section 19a-36, that left no doubt that food sharing activities engaged in by both Food Not Bombs and St. Vincent De Paul were protected. The Governor signed this legislation into law within days. The City has not passed any modification or amendment to its municipal code.
According to Peter Goselin, one of the lawyers for Food Not Bombs, “the amended state statute not only protects free distribution of food to people who need it in Connecticut, but should be viewed as a model for other states to follow so that faith-based and civic organizations can do what is needed. This is particularly important given news released today that one in six Americans now live in poverty.”
In light of the events of the past several weeks, Food Not Bombs today dismissed the State of Connecticut as a defendant in the pending federal lawsuit, which until today, had been on hold in order to allow the State Department of Public Health hearings to reach a conclusion. The federal lawsuit charges the city with violating the State and Federal Constitutional rights of Food not Bombs, and of targeting the organization based on its politics.
According to Abe Bobman, a Food Not Bombs volunteer who was arrested in May for food sharing, “Food Not Bombs always was and continues to be a community-wide celebration of local abundance and an expression of the effort to eliminate the violence of poverty and hunger. Our food-sharing events are not now, and never were, subject to the regulations of the city or state codes. While it is unfortunate that the Attorney General, State Legislature, and Governor had to step in to fix the city’s violation of our constitutionally-protected rights, we are pleased that there is now no doubt that in Connecticut, food sharing activities should be encouraged, and not criminalized. Most of all, we are looking forward to once again being able to engage in our activities, as we had for over ten years, without the threat of constitutionally unlawful criminal prosecution.”