In St. Louis, it's completely legal to tailgate or barbecue without a permit. Not so with feeding the homeless.
Churches on the Street is a mobile ministry that has been serving home-cooked meals to the city's homeless population for around a year.
Group members were notified Monday by the city's health department that they can only serve prepackaged food -- that is, unless they pony up the cash for a permit and follow department guidelines for food preparation.
"It's open to the public, so anything open to the public falls under the food code," says St. Louis' health director Pam Walker. "They were bringing the food in their cars and setting it up outside. There's a lot of potential there for food to go bad, and homeless people have a right to not suffer from food poisoning."
Walker says the fact that the event is held on private property doesn't matter, because the service is open to the public.Tailgating at a Rams game or barbecuing in your back yard, on the other hand, does not qualify as a public distribution of food and does not need a permit.
A temporary permit costs $50 per event, while annual fees can run between $150 and $300.
"If I want to cook and poison my own family and friends that's OK, but when you're open to the public that's implying a certain standard of safety," Walker says. "That's the standard we have in place for all the homeless shelters in the city."
Though the ministry has spent much the past year holding religious and meal services at the same location on the riverfront, last week's Monday night meal received front-page treatment by the Post Dispatch. Apparently, the health department officials also read the paper. They did not like what they saw.
In the photos that accompany the Post Dispatch's followup story, large steaming pots appear to be simply resting on folding tables. Hot food with temperatures below 140 degrees has a high risk of bacteria growth.
Angela Valdes, one of the organizers for Churches on the Streets, tells Daily RFT that the group was working under the assumption that serving hot food on private property was legal without a permit.
"We don't blame the city; we want to make sure we are obeying the law," she says, adding that the group will still be serving food on Monday nights, but only prepackaged food from now on. Volunteers will also make further efforts to go out into the city's parks and streets to distribute food to homeless individuals.
"We got comfortable at the camp. We are Churches on the Streets. We want to get back out onto the street."
Those interested in donating food or volunteering can contact the group through its Facebook page, or by e-mailing Valdes at firstname.lastname@example.org.