A new law threatens to shut down grassroots organizations that feed the hungry.

By Keith McHenry

On September 18, California Governor Jerry Brown signed bill AB 2178, otherwise referred to as the Limited Service Charitable Feeding Operation. State officials claim the bill will make it easier for people who serve food to the hungry to get an Environmental Health Permit. But in practice, it will limit or eliminate the ability of grassroots programs to feed hungry people—unless they are granted permission to do so by state Health Departments. The law will take effect on January 1, 2019.

It is reasonable for the state to regulate many things, like pesticides or nuclear power, but feeding the hungry is not one of them—particularly when nearly 5 million people in California go hungry each month. The California Association of Food Banks reports that 1 in 5 children go hungry daily, so why do authorities who cannot feed them feel the need to regulate the people seeking to address this crisis? 

Under AB 2178, groups would be limited to serving food prepared in a commercial kitchen, and will only be able to share whole, uncut produce and prepackaged, “non hazardous foods” in its original packaging. This will cause hundreds of California programs that feed the hungry to secure commercial kitchens, or defy the new law. Grassroots organizations will also be forced to comply with the most expensive parts of the Environmental Health Regulations, which until now were only required by commercial food establishments. Counties are free to impose a fee that they calculate will cover the expense of implementing this law. This could be several hundred dollars. 

The purpose of food safety laws is to regulate commercial food establishments that have an economic incentive to serve unsafe food. Until recently, this concept in law was generally understood. But this new law will provide anti-homeless groups with a new weapon to shut down the public sharing of food with the hungry. As recently as September, the Santa Monica chapter of Food Not Bombs was forced out of the commercial kitchen they had been using by a residents network group.

It is reasonable for the state to regulate many things, like pesticides or nuclear power, but feeding the hungry is not one of them—particularly when nearly 5 million people in California go hungry each month. 

Indeed, AB 2178 was created in response to complaints to local Health Departments, presumably by constituents who did not like to see hungry people being fed in their neighborhoods. But when I asked Justin Malan—Executive Director of California Association of Environmental Health Administrators, Freddie Agyin, Los Angeles County Environmental Health—and Jimmy Wittrock—legislative assistant to Assembly Person, Monique Limón—about the number of people claiming to have been made ill eating the food provided by volunteer programs, they had no direct information that could link the meals with any reports of food borne illnesses. 

Another bill (AB 626) was also signed into law on September 18. Introduced by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, AB 626 offers some hope to groups who feed the hungry, because it allows cities and counties to authorize and permit homemade food sales under a new category, of “retail food facilities”. But Garcia’s bill still requires permission from city and county governments, providing ample opportunity for anti-homeless organizations to resist these meals. It also restricts the number of means that can be served to 30 meals per day, and 60 meals per week, and gives local law enforcement agencies the power to decrease these limits. 

All of this is attempting to find a solution where there isn’t a problem. But it will create a problem for hungry people if the law is enforced. There will be California Food Not Bombs Gathering from November 10th through the 12th at the Omni Commons—4799 Shattuck Avenue in Oakland—to organize a statewide response to AB 2178. I encourage all groups who believe this law is directed towards their work to let their local Environmental Health Director know they will refuse to cooperate, and that they are in solidarity with all other outdoor food programs who also intend to ignore requests for compliance with AB 2178 

If the authorities can issue your group a permit, they can also take it away. Local anti-homeless activists will make sure your permit is pulled by tormenting the owners of anyone lending food programs a commercial kitchen. Don’t cooperate with this hunger promoting law. 

Sharing free food is always an unregulated gift of compassion. 

Food is a right, not a privilege. 

You can contact: 

Justin Malan, Executive Director of California Association of Environmental Health Administrators
910 K St Ste 300 
Sacramento, CA 95814 USA 
(916) 448-1015 justin@ccdeh.com 

Food Not Bombs 
PO Box 422 
Santa Cruz, CA 95061 USA

Keith McHenry is the co-founder of the Food Not Bombs Movement.