LIZ WILLIAMS is the director and president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Besides her work with SoFAB, she is a lawyer who writes about the legal aspects of food, reflecting culture, policy and economics.
Liz Williams regularly “tweets” about food, law, and policy. Follow her here.
Government watchers have noted an increase over the previous year in the number of people in the US who are hungry. (http://www.citymayors.com/features/uscity_poverty.html). There is no excuse for this country to have unfed, hungry people. But with the economy not quite healed there are those who cannot feed their families. Housing costs and unemployment factor into the recent equation, adding pressure to the existing base of hungry people.
The hungry who are homeless present a particular problem. Those people who choose to live on the street, instead of in a shelter or instead of seeking an assistance program, have been variously described as mentally ill, fiercely independent, unable to live by the rules and order of shelters, or addicted to alcohol or drugs. Whatever the reason for it, these independent homeless people are sometimes hungry, not making it to faith-based kitchens or other sites where food is distributed.
Reaching this recalcitrant, hungry population is difficult. It requires creative outreach. It requires a persistence in being in the place where the hungry are. It requires a willingness to forgo the thanks of the hungry – no asking for prayers or preaching to them. This selfless devotion to those who need to eat, even if they are ungrateful and unappreciative, is the very epitome of goodness.
The Herrings of Houston, Bobby and Amanda, took it upon themselves to feed these very hardcore homeless. They prepared food and distributed it. They did this over a number of months without interference. But then the health department in Houston stopped their work because they had no permit and did not prepare the food in a certified kitchen. While the homeless deserve wholesome and safe food, just as the rest of us do, it does make me wonder about balancing the need to protect the hungry from the danger of unsafe food and the danger of starvation. Eating food from the trash cannot be more wholesome than eating food prepared in someone’s kitchen.
I have been known to give an apple or even a sandwich to a person looking wretched at a traffic light under the interstate. Sometimes the person takes it. But I have no license or permit. I am not suggesting that anyone would require such a gesture to be permitted. I assume that even the most regulated society would not require such a permit. When is keeping people fed more important than rules applicable to both commercial operations and charitable ones? Conversely, when does enforcing regulations become more important than alleviating hunger?
When I read about the regulations that shut down the Herrings, I feel frustration. No doubt the Herrings are even more frustrated. The police and the health department seem sympathetic, but also they need to enforce the law. There is even discussion by the local politicians suggesting that they should consider a special provision for charitable distribution of food – one that can protect the health of the hungry from unsafe food, but not impose expensive and unnecessary requirements on the kitchens.
I cannot help but wonder what caused the police and the health department to decide to shut down the operation months after they had begun. And where do you draw the line between passing a sandwich or an apple through a car window and bringing food from your kitchen to people on the street? What if you passed out 10 sandwiches or 50 sandwiches? Is that difference merely quantitative? Is one sandwich every day in the same place different from 50 sandwiches randomly distributed? Of course this food for the hungry should be wholesome, but food can be wholesome even when not prepared in a commercial kitchen. Those of us who still eat at home usually prepare our food in home kitchens. It brings to mind the question of requiring permits and the use of a commercial kitchen in order to hold a bake sale, that great fundraising tradition at schools and churches.
My grandmother’s house must have been marked with some secret sign. In the 1950s hungry people would knock on her door and ask her for food. She always fed them. I was often visiting in the late 1950s and given the task of bringing the plate of food with lemonade to the back porch for the hungry man. They were always served the same food that my grandmother had fed to me and to my grandfather. I was often afraid of these men. They were dirty and smelled bad. They smiled at me with stained and decayed teeth. But my grandmother said that they must be fed and that I must treat them as guests. So I did.
Thinking about the Herrings seeking out the hungry to make sure that they are fed reminds me of the potential personal danger that could face them. I admire the fact that they are acting on their convictions. I admire the fact that they do not predicate feeding people on compliance with shelter regulations or gratitude. The frightened, the addicts, the mentally ill – the forgotten people - are being reached. These people, the most vulnerable, are not being served by strict adherence to law. They are already hiding in the cracks and it is hard for law to find the cracks. That is where people with reason must step in. Not just talk about stepping in, but really do it. There needs to be reasonable discretion built into the nation of laws.