Why do people get in trouble for feeding the homeless?

One of the ways that the legal system protects homeless people is to keep them from being victimized, in various ways, by dangerous handouts. Food handouts, for example, when they are not cooked or stored properly, can make recipients very sick. So there are laws about food preparation and management. Restaurants, organizations, and food trucks all have to follow these laws. Typically, these are health department regulations. But there can also be criminal laws that apply–such as homicide and battery laws that would punish one person for poisoning another.

Some people think that they are being helpful by collecting and handing out unused prescription medicines to people on the street. That is illegal drug distribution in every jurisdiction. Only licensed medical doctors can legally decide which kinds of medicine a patient needs. Most of the donation punishment stories that upset the public are about food donations.

When companies or nonprofit groups operate a system for distributing food to the homeless, they have a limited degree of protection from the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. This is a federal law that protects food donors (whether they donate groceries or cooked meals) from various kinds of liability unless the food that they donate either makes a homeless person sick or kills a homeless person. Most of the time, these donors are not supposed to be charged with violating the federal laws about food packaging and food handling unless they are grossly negligent or intentionally commit misconduct with the food. If they know that something has gone wrong with the food and they are donating it to an organization that will then distribute it to the homeless, they have to tell the organization what went wrong.

Here is an example: Suppose a canned food company has a mix-up at its factory and a hundred cases of canned black beans are mistakenly labeled as canned tomatoes. The company cannot sell those, so they decide to donate them to the poor. This Food Donation Act requires that the canned food company explain the problem to the organization that they donate the cans to. The organization receiving those cans of beans has to (1) be able to fix those labels and then it has to (2) actually fix them. This is not a hard task: They can just print any normal white labels in their usual printer and write on those labels that a mistake was made in the factory packaging and these cans actually hold black beans, not tomatoes.

There is nothing in this federal law that treats major corporations differently than small local food donation services. However, the law specifically says that nothing in it “shall be construed to supercede State or local health regulations.” This is why food donors can still get in trouble for not having the right kind of dish washing facilities or not keeping food at the right temperature.

A chef in San Antonio, Texas who was serving gourmet meals to homeless people got all kinds of media attention when the police cited her for not operating out of a food truck. This chef had a permit for a food truck, but on the night that the police ticketed her, she was distributing food out of a different vehicle. The reasons for the food truck permit laws are all about food safety. Those trucks have to have a certain level of cleanliness and they need refrigeration and adequately warm operating areas for keeping hot food at a safe temperature, plus other features. This chef obviously knew about these rules since she had satisfied the requirements to get the permit, but on that night she brought out food that was not properly stored because it was not in a registered food truck. She truly did break the law and put people at risk.

Her response to the ticket, at least in the media, (she has not gone to court as of this writing) is that she has a First Amendment freedom of religion right to give food to poor people. That is a nice position to take, but it is not relevant to the law she broke. No matter what motivated her, she was only allowed to distribute food from the safe food truck for which she had a permit.

The federal Good Samaritan Food Donation Act only deals with punishment after food recipients have gotten sick. Local, county, and state laws aim to prevent anyone from getting sick by regulating what happens to the food before it gets served. Anybody hoping to offer food donations to the homeless should contact the county health department and the local police to find out in advance how they can be sure that their donations will be safe and legal. And anyone who does get in trouble for violating a food or medicine donation law should appreciate that the authorities are trying to keep the recipients safe.

1. Here is the federal food safety information that applies in all of the states. http://www.foodsafety.gov/

2. Here are links to state agencies regulating food safety. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/recalls-and-public-health-alerts/additional-recall-links/state-departments-of-public-health/ct_index

3. Here is a portal to the various sorts of laws relating to drugs. http://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-charges/drug-charges.html

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