A bill before the Washington Legislature could allow a private resident to provide food to homeless and hungry people without going through the same safety requirements as commercial or charitable kitchens. House Bill 1076 would reduce the barriers to food donations, allowing people to donate food they cooked in their own homes.
Proponents of the law say the bill gives incentives for people to help provide food to those in need. Opponents fear that removing these regulations could expose homeless and hungry people to foodborne illness and other risks.
Deputy director of the state Office of Environmental Health and Safety Rick Porso explained at a Jan. 17 hearing of the House of Representatives’ Healthcare and Wellness Committee that he sympathizes with the charitable motivations behind the bill but said the legal specifics are tricky.
“Private homes are not regulated, they cannot be inspected and are not designed for cooking large amounts of food in general,” Porso said.
He elaborated that the risk of foodborne illness is not something to take lightly. From 2010 to 2014, there were 40 annual outbreaks of foodborne illness resulting in an average of 450 sick people per year. For people with no access to shelter and limited access to health care, illness like this could be life threatening.
The code as it stands now allows the donation of potentially nonhazardous foods, which is usually interpreted to mean cookies, muffins and other baked goods as well as commercially packaged fruits and vegetables. If passed, the bill would add a single sentence to existing law, directing the Washington Board of Health to adopt rules regulating how people can prepare, serve and donate food from their homes.
The bill stems from a meal program that Public Health of Seattle-King County investigated in 2015. A program by Catholic Community Services encouraged people to bring food prepared in their homes to community centers to feed local residents who are homeless or in need. Investigations eventually ended the program, on the grounds that food safety could not be verified, putting the populations the program served at risk. For those in support, this bill cuts what they see as unnecessary regulations that block people from helping people in need.
“We ought to be encouraging this kind of stuff,” said Rep. Paul Graves, R-Issaquah. “It’s not going to be a permanent solution to everything, but it is going to be a good step to make sure that people who want to get involved and who want to help their neighbors can do it.
As the primary sponsor of the bill, he sees this as an opportunity to create a robust community of charity across Washington state. He explained that while he is more than willing to work to provide safety standards for the bill, for those who are hungry or homeless the relative risk of not eating or scavenging is greater than that of consuming food from private kitchens.
During the Jan. 17 Healthcare and Wellness Committee hearing , supporters expressed that this conversation is about addressing a universal need. They see this as balancing safety and nutrition for homeless populations.
“I believe that we can safely expand what can be made in people’s homes to provide nutritious meals when needed,” said Bellevue resident Liz Tidymen at the hearing. “I would like to give a hat tip to the Department of Health website. The infrastructure is already in place to develop guidelines for people like me to use in my home to provide nutritious and safe meals.”
Critics of the bill say the regulations in place ensure the safety of people who are already living in compromised situations.
Doing away with those rules without deep consideration of the human cost could be catastrophic, said Operation: Sack Lunch (OSL) Founding Director Beverly Graham.
Currently, an organization and its volunteers would have to have proper permits and licenses, as well as a consideration for safe food preparation and transportation. But the law opens up any number of people and kitchens to provide meals with little oversight.
“It’s discriminatory,” Graham said. “It’s absolutely discriminatory to say that people who have money deserve regulations but people who cannot pay do not deserve those same regulations.”
OSL serves 550,000 free meals in Washington state and is compliant with the Health Department. This means that all standards of food safety are met, including temperature control, cross-contamination restrictions and food licensing.
Graham believes unsheltered people deserve higher standards of safety given that their state of health is at a higher risk. These regulations are the minimum standard in protecting these populations from foodborne illness or contamination.
For her, the precedent this bill sets for the nonprofit sector defeats the past 20 years of fighting for the right of marginalized populations to safe food.
As someone who underwent all the procedures and follows all rules set forward by the state, Graham does not believe that the laws in place need to be changed.
HB 1076 is currently in the House Committee on Appropriations. If it is accepted, it would pass to the floor of the House, where it would be debated and brought up for a vote.
If the bill passes the House and Senate in its current form, the rules would be put into effect no later than June 30, 2018.