The volunteers came ready Saturday afternoon. They toted sacks of sandwiches, chowder, chili and pastas to give to downtown’s homeless and hungry.
And, freshly trained in tactics of civil disobedience, they wore sweatshirts saying, “Access to food is a human right,” and brought protest signs to show to any official who might stand in their way.
Unlike a similar gathering last month, no one tried to stop their mission.
Bundled up against the freezing weather, about 100 hungry people and their friends — as the volunteers call themselves — gathered for a picnic at Ilus Davis Park, in the shadow of City Hall and the U.S. District Courthouse.
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Participants spread blankets on the lawn and sat along the concrete walls surrounding the park, eating and sharing stories.
“It’s not just about the food,” said Carrie Lowe, a middle-aged homeless woman who often eats at the park on weekends. “You also get to talk with people out here who care.”
On Nov. 4, city health inspectors shut down several such picnics around the area, including one at Ilus Davis Park. Inspectors, saying they were concerned about public safety, confiscated the food and drowned it all in bleach.
The Health Department has since issued a statement saying it “has reviewed its food disposal practices during inspections. In the future, inspectors will no longer use bleach in these types of situations.”
The city’s director of health, Rex Archer, was not available for comment on Saturday but said last month that the food was confiscated because it had not been prepared in licensed or approved kitchens. The statement also said, “The Health Department has no problem with members of ‘Free Hot Soup’ serving food in public parks, providing they obtain the proper permits.”
City officials have said that dozens of similar groups have gotten permits to feed homeless people. But not Free Hot Soup, which contends it is a grassroots group, not a formal nonprofit. Over the past three years participants have communicated through social media to offer picnics in Independence, Belton and the Northland, as well as downtown.
The Health Department statement says that since Free Hot Soup promotes its picnics on social media and presents an open invitation, “they are operating just like any temporary food service event or food establishment within the City, which are all required to have health permits and proper food safety training and to protect the people they serve from foodborne illnesses.”
Since the Nov. 4 dispute, subsequent picnics in parks, including Saturday’s, have gone off without incident. Neither city health officials nor police interrupted the meals.
Chris Hernandez, a city spokesman, said, “We believe that everyone deserves to have food that is prepared safe, even if you are homeless.” The health department has been working with members of Free Hot Soup, he said, and has noticed the group bringing more pre-packaged food and food prepared in commercial kitchens, rather that home cooked.
But on Saturday, volunteers brought bags of homemade pork sandwiches and coolers full of other home-cooked meals. They said they don’t intend to stop.
“I’m blessed, so I feel like blessing others,” said Sharon Emert, who worked for 20 years with the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers in Kansas City. “This is my way of giving back.”
Saturday’s picnic was larger than previous events because volunteers came from around the area in a call to protest, said Nellie McCool of Merriam, who helped start Free Hot Soup. She said that last month health department officials infringed on their right to assemble and to share a meal with friends and strangers.
On Friday, the group on its Facebook page invited volunteers to an hour of training in non-violent civil disobedience.
“By popular request, we would like to offer an opportunity to become educated and informed in the proper response to authorities, while still remaining firm and grounded in our federal rights as private citizens,” the invitation said. “It is important to use this moment to reflect on how to continue building on the beautiful work already happening, and to prepare for when/if the Health Department paid Free Hot Soup another visit.”
On Saturday the group was joined by a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union, just in case inspectors came to confiscate their food again.
Felix Martinez, who used to live in Davis Park and has been eating meals with Free Hot Soup for more than a year, said he was at the park the day the Health Department took away the food.
“These people come out here to feed people,” he said. “For a lot of people, this is all they eat. It made me sad. I cried.”