RAVENSWOOD — Last weekend, the Rev. Shauna Hyde and the congregants at First United Methodist Church in Ravenswood plugged in what they all thought would be a great way to allow unrestricted access to food for the needy in Jackson County — a refrigerator.
Members of the church wanted a way for people to take food as they needed it and without feeling any shame; but how could they provide a means for people to access refrigerated food without having to ask?
Simple — put it outside.
“We just wanted a way for more people to have access to food, along with some privacy and a little dignity,” Hyde said. “It was just a wild idea.”
Two days later, the call came from the Jackson County Health Department. Someone had complained about the fridge, which had not yet been stocked with food, and the JCHD told the church that having a fridge outside was against state health codes.
Hyde said the church had already taken steps to ensure the fridge was safe, including building a special cage to prevent children from crawling inside it and only stocking it with prepackaged food, so the health department’s response came as a surprise.
“Attorneys had assured me that on our own property we could have a fridge,” Hyde said. “[The health department] cited so many rules and regulations that it just blew my mind — it was everything from an unmanned refrigerator to different food codes, different FDA codes, and I was astounded.”
Jonathan Graziani, a sanitarian with the JCHD, said that although the refrigerator is a “noble effort” to combat hunger, the county has several food pantries, all of which must adhere to the same health codes.
“Our concern with this church was never providing for the poor; we think that’s very noble, it’s just making sure that the food is safe. That is our concern,” he said. “A refrigerator is not to be left outside. They’re not made for that — rain, snow, sleet, even heat can be an issue in operating a refrigerator. But we were also concerned about food safety — leaving an unmanned refrigerator out on a sidewalk is not a safe environment.”
Graziani said that in order to comply with code, the fridge must only be accessible when someone is at the church, and its internal temperature must be checked daily. It also has to be protected from the elements and cannot be left outside unsheltered.
“Our main concern was the safety of the food. We want to make sure that whoever takes food from that refrigerator is safe,” he said.
Hyde is trying to comply with the code. The fridge will need to have an enclosure built around it to protect it, and will need to be padlocked when no one is around to monitor it.
“They were never ugly; I think they panicked. It was an unusual complaint,” Hyde said. “Since the initial ruckus, they are now working with us to make it safe for everyone, which is sort of cool, because now there may be a precedent for it, and other churches could do it if they follow these guidelines.”
Graziani said any church or organization that might consider making a similar installation should contact their local health department and make sure they’re following the proper procedure.
“The health department is not your enemy,” he said. “We’re here for guidance and inspection. Your local health inspector usually gets a bad rep, but our main goal is education and keeping our community safe.”
For Hyde, the goal remains the same: providing access to food for those who may not ask for it.
“I see it a lot, because we have a growing number of senior citizens on a fixed income — and I think the whole country is facing this — yet costs are only rising, and they’re of that generation where you must be stoic, and you can’t let people know you’re struggling,” she said. “And then, of course, we have huge drug problems, and the No. 1 form of child abuse is neglect, but if a kid can walk to that fridge and get something, at least they won’t go to bed hungry.”
Reach Lydia Nuzum at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5189 or follow @lydianuzum on Twitter.