Depending on whom you ask, health department officials on Sunday either stopped an unlicensed group from illegally handing out potentially bacteria-ridden food or destroyed the property of some “friends” having a “picnic.”
According to official documents, the Kansas City Health Department stopped volunteers of Free Hot Soup Kansas City from handing out food at several Kansas City parks because they lacked the required food handling permits. The food was seized and discarded or was destroyed with bleach.
“This operation claims to care about folks, but if you care about folks, you want to prepare food safely,” said Dr. Rex Archer, director of the Kansas City Health Department.
Without safe preparation, transportation and storage, food can become contaminated with E. coli, shigella, salmonella or other illness-causing pathogens.
Free Hot Soup organizer Nellie Ann McCool insisted the group is exempt from health regulations because it is not an “organization.” She maintained that she and the other volunteers were holding picnics to share food with friends.
“As far as I know, picnics are not regulated by the same laws as organizations and vendors, so by using our public parks to have a picnic with our friends, I don’t believe we were breaking any rules,” McCool said Tuesday morning on KCUR’s Up To Date.
Archer said the health department had received complaints about the group leaving trash in areas where it had conducted similar events in September. The department has since monitored the group on social media and stepped in when it listed several simultaneous picnics at four city parks on Sunday.
“If it’s a family picnic, it’s for the family, and it’s at one location,” Archer said. “So it was pretty clear that this was an operation that was operating illegally.”
Police officers accompanied health department officials to the four sites on Sunday. Archer said that, while the encounters at three of the sites went smoothly, a volunteer at the fourth site threw food at an inspector.
Free Hot Soup encountered similar food safety problems in April, when officials intervened after the group began an outreach program in Belton, according to a news report.
Dozens of charitable organization in Kansas City do have permits to provide food publically. For other charitable groups, permits are typically waived and safety inspectors are provided free of charge.
McCool said Tuesday morning that Free Hot Soup does not plan to seek permits.
“We are not an organization, so there is no organization to get a permit,” McCool said.
She claimed the health department frowned upon Free Hot Soup Kansas City’s mission and the city’s motive was “to bully us into becoming an organization.”
On Facebook, some Free Hot Soup supporters listed the names and contact information for health department employees and encouraged fellow supporters to contact them.
One group administrator described “grown men and women crying as they watched good, hot food made with so much love be destroyed right in front of them.”
Archer disagreed with online suggestions that the health department’s actions had caused homeless people to go hungry, citing numerous safety-inspected shelters that provide food daily.
“If people want to help – and I hope they do – they can contribute money to those organizations or they can volunteer,” Archer said.
He described the harassment of public servants as “mind-boggling.”
Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR.