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Hot Food out of the Cold

Churches participating in county’s hypothermia program scramble for a last minute OK to serve food at the nightly shelters.

The Fairfax County Health Department’s sudden enforcement of an existing food safety law didn’t stop Fairfax Area Christian Emergency and Transition Services (FACETS) from serving up hot, home-cooked meals on the first night of the four-month long hypothermia prevention program.

Mary Schmidt, food coordinator at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 8922 Little River Turnpike, Annandale, made pot roast, baked potatoes, carrots, peas, onions and gravy for more than 20 homeless guests at the church, Friday, Dec. 1. It was the first night of the countywide program to prevent hypothermia deaths among the more than 2,000 homeless people living in its borders.

“There were reports that there were hypothermia-related deaths in the area [in 2004],” said Jim Brigl, executive director of FACETS. “This was initiated by FACETS and several churches three winters ago because that’s just not acceptable.”

No cold weather-related deaths occurred among the homeless last year. The program didn’t encounter any obstacles with the health department last year either, but this year, health officials responded to a complaint about food safety in the church kitchens and among donated foods, said Merni Fitzgerald, spokesperson for the Fairfax County government. Because of the complaint, health officials began paying more attention to the churches preparing to participate in the shelter program in early November. The added attention was not well received.

"You don't want to discourage people from baking cookies," said Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock).

County health officials announced they would be enforcing a law that forbids cooking food for the public in non-approved food preparation kitchens.

"That sort of defeats the purpose of getting involved," said Bulova.

The churches that partner with FACETS in order to provide the hypothermia shelter services were immediately concerned about not being able to serve homemade food, since many church kitchens in the county are not certified.

“It’s a horrible bureaucratic formula meant for restaurants,” said Jim Brooke, a trustee at Bethlehem Lutheran Church.

AFTER SOME SCRAMBLING with health inspections and last minute food safety courses, Bethlehem Lutheran was able to receive a temporary approval in time for the shelter program’s opening night there.

Brooke said springing the enforcement at the very last minute was unfair. If health officials told the churches about the newly enforced regulations last summer, they would have had sufficient time to get everything in order, he said.

“It was a bureaucratic decision with no thought of the social impact,” said Brooke. “It created a lot of anger in people because it was getting in the way of doing a good thing.”

The anger passed, however. Brooke and Brigl both said the health department and county officials, specifically Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-At-large) of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, did their part in speeding up the approval process to ensure that people seeking shelter from the cold would also be able to eat hot meals. Extra food safety courses were offered so food coordinators at the churches could be certified to handle and prepare the shelter meals.

“Nobody and no bureaucratic regulation will interfere with Fairfax County’s ability to feed and help the homeless this winter,” said Connolly, in a Nov. 29 statement from the county’s public affairs office. “Fairfax County leads the region in a comprehensive approach to ending homelessness, and we won’t turn our back on our community now.”

Schmidt attended a food safety course just two days before Bethlehem Lutheran’s doors opened for the program. Since the county has the authority to grant food variances, Fitzgerald said people can still prepare food at home, such as cookies and casseroles, and donate it to the shelters.

“What a wonderful way to assist us in our efforts,” she said. “The most important thing here is our ability to feed and shelter the homeless, and we all have the same goal. Part of nurturing has always been the ability to eat together and make a meal to feed persons other than ourselves.”

While food safety is important, so is the tradition of baking grandma’s recipe at home and donating it to those in need, she said.

“I think common sense has prevailed here,” said Bulova.

Brooke attributed the speedy approval at Bethlehem Lutheran to Cassandra Mitchell Baker, a food safety inspector with the food services division of the health department. He said Baker helped the church meet all of the requirements, even when it seemed like it had a long way to go. She completed the inspection just hours before the doors opened, said Brooke.

“I am so impressed with the county response,” said Brigl. “It has been very positive.”

THE HYPOTHERMIA PROGRAM runs from Dec. 1 through March 31. Churches donate the use of their facilities on a weekly rotating basis for the 17-week program. Brigl said that four of the weeks this winter have two church shelters scheduled. Last year, 406 homeless people participated in the program, said Brigl, which was more than anticipated.

The nightly counts varied anywhere from 30 or 40 people to 80 or 90 people, said Rev. Dr. Philip Hirsch, pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church.

FACETS gets the word out to the homeless through fliers and direct communication with other homeless care facilities and shelters, said Brigl. Since homeless people generally don’t have access to traditional advertising sources, like television or newspapers, getting the word out can be a challenge. Brigl said a lot of communication is done through the Lamb Center, a daytime facility for the homeless that provides food, laundry and education services. FACETS also delivers hot meals to homeless people in the community nightly, which has been another way to spread the word about the hypothermia programs’ schedule.

FACETS also uses its outreach workers to distribute the information to the homeless. Brigl said the workers generally know each and every homeless person they work with by name, including where they like to camp or hang out.

“This is really a great thing we’re doing,” said Brigl. “It’s keeping people alive and safe.”