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With the growing urgent need to provide food and shelter to the homeless and hungry people in Richmond, many individual benefactors came forward to work in an effort to fill the need.

In recent months, the Madison County Department of Health has shut down several attempts to create nutritional programs for the needy and the homeless.

One such program was created by Neil Sears.

For the past several years, Sears has been cooking meals in his home and then transporting those hot meals to areas like Turpin Drive, Smith Village and Main Street near Family Dollar in order to feed the hungry in Richmond.

Sears called it the Sober Culinary Initiative.

In November, Sears activities ceased.

According to Sears, the Madison County Health Department (MCHD) showed up at his home and gave him notice to stop his food program immediately.

Sears was informed that his food program was, in fact, against the law and the notice cited laws and regulations from Kentucky Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act KRS 217.001 – 217.998 and State Food Code: 902 KAR 45:005.

The Sears initiative was not the first of its kind to be shut down by the Department of Health.

Last year, a community refrigerator placed outside a former restaurant downtown was forced to cease operations by the Department of Children’s Health and Medicine, which cited the same laws.

Simply put, state food at these statues cannot be served to the public outside of the home kitchen without proper permission, in accordance with federal and state law.

Ministry of Health and Prevention staff said the notices for these food programs were to protect the public.

“Home-prepared foods that are given or sold to the public from your home are not allowed, they are strictly off-limits,” said Woody Arvin, an environmental expert with the Madison County Department of Health. “No one is allowed to prepare food in the kitchen of the house, and there are several reasons for that. It is not allowed, it is disorganized, and it does not know the conditions of that house.”

Do they change their children on work surfaces while preparing food? Do they have cats and dogs roaming? Do they have hot water? Do they have a way to wash their hands? A lot of things are at play. There are very few areas in the United States that allow foods prepared in Home is for the public. You can’t do that.”

Sears said that in his years serving the public with his group, The Kentucky Crusade, no one got sick.

After receiving the notification from the Ministry of Health, a post was published on social media about the situation.

The publication received negative criticism from the public, who wondered why a person who intended to feed the needy was “closed”.

Some comments suggested that the healthy entity was power-hungry, or trying to control others.

According to Arvin, this is simply not the case.

He said their goal is to educate the public as well as regulate and “protect the fundamentals of public health safety.”

“Contrary to popular belief, we don’t go out here and make laws and regulations. The point of our regulations is that we operate in accordance with the FDA Food Act of 2013 and the purpose of a food model code is uniformity and consistency. I feel what I’m trying to do, is to be consistent and fair, and we always like to think about Ourselves as teachers first, and regulators second,” Arvin said.

Additionally, members of the public questioned why a church or charitable organization would serve the food, but not an individual like Sears.

According to Arvin, and according to the Cabinet’s Food Safety Branch of the state’s Health and Family Services, churches and charitable groups that provide for those in need may do so without being allowed or regularly inspected, if foods are in package form, from commercially approved sources, from food vending establishments Retail allowed, and in safe and sound condition.

It is recommended, however, that these groups be provided with a copy of the state Food Code as a basic guide.

Retail food establishments, organizations, associations, and individuals who donate safe and “apparently healthy” food to non-profit organizations for distribution to those in need are protected from civil and criminal liability under the provisions of KRS 413.248 as amended by House Bill 68 in 2006.

Despite the complexity of the appropriate channels, Sears said he’s not disappointed.

Work has begun in cooperation with the Department of Health to receive permits and instructions on the specifications of a commercial kitchen in order to continue its nutritional program.

Arvin said after locating a commercial, a code-equipped kitchen should have some basic ingredients.

These components include: a three-compartment sink large enough to wash the largest piece of equipment, drain panels, hand basins in the washing, cooking and food preparation areas, restrooms, mop sink, grease trap, aeration system, and grill system cover.

Arvin said individuals trying to get their permit not only need to go through the health department, but also have to be screened by plumbing, law enforcement and utilities and the fire chief.

In very few cases, Arvin said, personal housing has been approved by the Department of Health for catering to the public.

Those who are approved usually have a separate or separate food preparation area located away from the personal use kitchen.

“It bothered me that we had to shut down Sober Cooking and that we could no longer serve hot meals, because I didn’t realize I had to have a commercial kitchen and paperwork to do so,” said Sears. “Eventually, I’m going to get these things, and without it, it would have been way down the road. That put a nudge in my step, and had it not happened, I would have been dragged longer. Now, I know what I have to do.”

Sam Metcalfe, director of the environmental program at MCDC, encouraged anyone in Madison County who had questions regarding public food programs, to contact them.

“That’s our job,” Metcalf said. “It all boils down to the safety of the public.” “It’s not that we just sit there and look for people. You just have to do it the right way and not get out of your house. We don’t want people to get sick.”

According to Arvin, there are 48 million foodborne illnesses annually resulting in 125,000 hospitalizations. He said nearly 3,000 people die annually from a food-related illness. That’s down from 10 years ago when agencies were seeing 75 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths.

“We think, with our education, current food laws and things like that, we feel like that’s reduced diseases,” Arvin said.

The Department of Health follows the Federal Food Act of 2013 that the state of Kentucky adheres to.

These aren’t new laws, said Arvin.

After the creation of the USDA by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, Teddy Roosevelt helped advance food safety efforts in 1906.

Roosevelt initiated the Pure Food and Drug Act inspired by the work of journalist Upton Sinclair. Sinclair went undercover to tell a story about the appalling condition of Lithuanian immigrants working in the meatpacking industry dealing with spoiled meat, insects, and rats.

In 1938, Franklin Roosevelt expanded the regulation, and according to Arvin, this code is the updated version that environmentalists are working with today, along with the Drugs and Cosmetics Act.

“We want to make it clear that our goal is for people to consume safe food in Madison County,” Arvin stressed. “Basic protection of public health is our goal. It’s hard for us to spread this word because people want to look at us in a negative way, but our health department does a lot for the health of the community in general. A lot of needed services are being provided here.”

In terms of helping feed those in need, Arvin said the best-case scenario is for the chefs to find a place that already has a permit they can rent from. This can become a liability problem, if someone gets sick.

Arvin said the biggest recommendation for those who want to feed those in need — and comply with food safety protocol — would be to get together and see what services everyone can bring to the table.

“Some of these groups, if they can come together… and try to have a kind of communal kitchen where they can all participate in. Churches, when they remodel — I practically beg — get your kitchen, where you decide you want a permit at any time, you have Already your things are in place,” Arvin said.

For more information, contact the Environmental Branch of the Health Department at 859-626-4241.

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