Pouring bleach on food? There’s a better way for Health Department to protect KC homeless

Food for homeless picnics shut down by KC health department

A group called 'Free Hot Soup KC' gave away food at local parks on Sunday. But they were shut down by the Kansas City Health Department for serving without a permit.
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A group called 'Free Hot Soup KC' gave away food at local parks on Sunday. But they were shut down by the Kansas City Health Department for serving without a permit.

Many Kansas Citians were frustrated and angry after a recent confrontation between the Health Department and a group of activists who feed the homeless in area parks.

A coalition known as Free Hot Soup has been handing out home-cooked food for more than a year. The food is donated by volunteers — Free Hot Soup refers to its efforts as a “picnic” for homeless Kansas Citians who don’t want to eat at area shelters and who enjoy a hot meal with friends.

Free Hot Soup doesn’t have a city permit as a “food establishment.” Its volunteers appear to lack formal training in safe food handling.

That worries health officials, who shut down Free Hot Soup’s events last week. At one location, authorities doused the suspect food with bleach, rendering it inedible.

The encounter prompted an outcry from the political left and the right. They said the “nanny state” had interfered with a well-intentioned effort to help those who need it, without regulatory red tape.

Health officials insist they are simply following the law, which is designed to protect the health and safety of everyone in the community, including the homeless. Food illnesses are nasty things.

The suggestion that the homeless live dangerously and must therefore accept the risk of tainted food is nonsense. They deserve basic protections like everyone else.

Free Hot Soup plans to hold more picnics on Sunday. Some volunteers may distribute pre-packaged food, which can be passed out without a permit. Health officials said they may issue citations if the law is broken again.

The apparent impasse is regrettable — and preventable. A compromise is possible, one that allows what appears to be an important public service to continue but also protects the health of everyone involved.

To their credit, both sides told us they’re willing to discuss a middle ground. We think they can find it.

Here’s how it might work. The Health Department could agree to send at least one food safety inspector to Free Hot Soup events, free of charge, not as an enforcer but as an adviser. Those city employees could oversee food distribution, alerting volunteers when food might not be safe.

The Free Hot Soup volunteers would agree not to serve food that hasn’t been prepared and handled safely. Citations would not be issued.

Then, during the next six months, a handful of Free Hot Soup volunteers would take free food handling courses offered by the Health Department. At the end of that period, every event would have to include at least one certified food handler, or face cancellation.

Other volunteers would not need permits. The events organized by Free Hot Soup or any similar coalition could proceed, with at least one person providing trained food safety oversight.

Free Hot Soup volunteers have suggested that the Health Department’s efforts are intended to put a stop to their events because neighbors have objected to large crowds of the homeless in the parks. The department denies this.

Kansas City’s parks are free and open to anyone. At the same time, we’d like to see Free Hot Soup expand its footprint to other venues on both sides of the state line. Smaller gatherings may be preferable to events with 100 or 200 people eating all at once.

These recommendations could serve as a starting point for a conversation. We hope they can provide a framework for a reasonable compromise that protects those who need help, while ensuring safe food and drink for every Kansas Citian.