On March 5, Jean Pockrus ’08 was checking her e-mail account when she discovered an unexpected notice—a cease and desist order issued by the City of Middletown Health Department to Middletown’s chapter of Food Not Bombs. According to the legal order, the group’s practice of dispensing food and beverages to the public is in violation of city and state health codes. If the group continues to serve food without a license, the Middletown Health Department will request “police action.”
The legal order came as a surprise to the group, which has worked with Middletown’s poor and homeless population for the past 10 years without previous legal interference. Food Not Bombs, a national organization that was founded in 1980 by activists involved in the anti-war movement, aims to share free vegetarian food with the nation’s hungry.
“Food insecurity is a reality in Middletown,” said Abe Bobman ’11, one of the members of Food Not Bombs involved with making the meals on Sundays that are offered at the corner of Main and Liberty Street.
According to the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, the number of homeless people in the state rose from 3,325 in 2007 to 4,366 in 2008. The 2008 Point in Time Survey found over 200 people homeless in Middlesex County.
“We are a group of people responding on a very basic level to a very real need in our community outside of the bureaucracy of state institutions,” Bobman said.
According to the legal order, Food Not Bombs is in violation of several city and state health codes, including the Middletown Municipal Code section 166-3 and the State of Conn. Public Health Code section 19-13-B42. The first of these health codes refers to individuals or groups involved with the processing, preparing, and/or dispensing of food without a license from the Health Department; the latter focuses on compliance with state regulations for serving food and/or beverages to the public.
While the Department of Health claimed in the legal notice to have been “contacting the group since October 2008 with no response,” Pockrus said that the only contact she received was one vaguely written e-mail in October, which she forwarded to the group. None of the group’s members noticed anything serious in the e-mail, and the matter was quickly forgotten.
Rather than addressing the legal order to the Middletown Chapter of Food Not Bombs, the Health Department specifically addressed it to Pockrus. To complicate matters even further, Pockrus—who had been one of the main organizers of the group during her four years at Wesleyan—graduated from the University almost one year ago and no longer resides in Conn. The Health Department has ignored the group’s request to remove Pockrus from the legal order, and now she may be asked to attend a hearing in Hartford if the appeal fails.
According to Peter Goselin, the Conn. Coordinator of the National Lawyers Guild who worked extensively with Food Not Bombs on drafting their Notice of Appeal, Food Not Bombs is a political activity protected by the First Amendment. The group is appealing the order on the grounds that sharing food is a First Amendment right.
“It would be no more applicable for the city of Middletown to apply health regulations to Food Not Bombs than to apply regulations to a person giving a casserole to their next door neighbor,” Goselin said. “It’s things people do for people. Granted, Food Not Bombs is doing a more organized version of this, but they’re simply sharing resources with neighbors.”
As Goselin explained, community directors often target chapters of Food Not Bombs because the group shares its food outdoors, which brings the poverty that many communities ignore into the open. He argues that requiring Food Not Bombs to operate with a Food and Beverage Dispensing License would be detrimental to their operation. If the organization were to accept the license, all other rules and regulations that restaurants, food vendors, and caterers follow would apply. Health inspectors would question where the food is prepared, who prepares it, and how it is prepared. Furthermore, the Health Department would inspect the kitchens where students prepare the food, and preparing meals in the kitchen of their Low Rise apartment or Woodframe house would be unlikely under these strict regulations.
According to Salvatore Nesci, Chief Public Health Sanitarian of Middletown and one of the individuals who issued the legal order to Food Not Bombs, the group is not serving food in an approved manner, which is problematic. In a recent post on the Middletown Eye, he noted that those groups and/or individuals serving food must be licensed and certified.
Goselin explained, however, that one of the primary differences between the claims of the Health Department and the activities of Food Not Bombs is that these health directives are aimed at organizations that serve food to the public. Food Not Bombs, however, is not operating under the framework of an organized charitable provider, such as a soup kitchen. Therefore, it does not need to comply with the Health Department’s regulation that the preparation, transportation, and distribution of food be licensed.
“Food Not Bombs is an activist organization that works with the poor as equals, not as charitable providers,” Goselin said in an interview with The Argus. “If the Health Department looked at these groups as first amendment political activities to start, these legal notices would not be issued in the first place.”
Although the group’s Notice of Appeal is in the process of being determined, Food Not Bombs still faces the threat of police action for continuing their work.
“In times of economic hardship, this legal order is mind-boggling,” Pockrus said. “And the order is threatening police action if we don’t comply. I mean, I doubt they’d arrest us, but having a police presence would not be good…many of the people we serve are poor, people of color…they would feel threatened by the police.”
Groselin emphasized the importance of appealing this legal notice in order to ensure the group’s survival.
“There’s a strong legal argument for appealing this order,” he said. “Getting a license misrepresents what they stand for and subjects the group to all of the other regulations that would follow. A license would be disadvantageous and would limit their operation immensely.”
Bobman agreed that the group has no reason to reform its practices to meet the demands of the order.
“Why do we need a regulation, protection, or legitimacy granted by the municipality if we’ve been successful and completely sanitary thus far?”