A Methodist church in West Virginia was stymied in its efforts to help the needy last week when the county health department told them their plan violated state health codes.
The parishioners at First United Methodist Church had decided to install a large refrigerator outside their building that those in need could access at any time. Anticipating concerns about food safety, they planned to stock it with only prepackaged food, and built a cage around it to prevent small children from climbing inside.
“We just wanted a way for more people to have access to food, along with some privacy and a little dignity,” Rev. Shauna Hyde told the Charleston Gazette. “It was just a wild idea.”
Too wild for one bad samaritan, who filed an anonymous complaint with the Jackson County Health Department before the fridge had even been stocked. Two days after they set it up, the man came knocking on their door.
“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.”
Health department officials aren’t eager to be painted as the bad guys, however. “Our concern with this church was never providing for the poor; we think that’s very noble,” said JCHD employee Jonathan Graziani. “It’s just making sure that the food is safe… 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,” he added. “Leaving an unmanned refrigerator out on a sidewalk is not a safe environment.”
JCHD says that the church can only keep the refrigerator if they build a shelter around it protecting it from the elements, padlock it when no one is inside the church, and check its internal temperature every day. Refrigerators are at the greatest risk of malfunctioning in very cold temperatures.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, poverty levels have been relatively stable in Ravenswood over the past 15 years, increasing from 14.5% in 2000 to 15.8% in 2012, putting them slightly above the national poverty rate of 15%.
“We have a growing number of senior citizens on a fixed income,” said Hyde. “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.”
She remains optimistic that their project will succeed. “Since the initial ruckus, they are now working with us to make it safe for everyone,” she said, “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.”
“The health department is not your enemy,” concurred Graziani.