NYC ban on unhealthy food at homeless shelters irks volunteers

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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is once again stirring a national debate on government-mandated healthy eating with a prohibition of high-calorie food donations to city-run homeless shelters.

Concerned that other municipalities may implement copycat policies if this policy prevails, activists on the political left and right are pushing back against Bloomberg, hoping to get the prohibition overturned.

“They will back down only if we keep the heat up,” Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, told The Daily Caller. “We’re encouraging people to donate the highest quality health food they can to shelters.”

Anti-fatty foods activists, who helped push through the city’s ban on trans-fat foods in its restaurants and bars a few years ago, are pleased with the Bloomberg precedent, however. They hope his policy could lead to radical new laws around the nation to ban fatty food consumption, much like cigarette smoking has been banned in restaurants and offices.

The source of the new ban is a mayor’s office policy memorandum. Stier obtained a copy of the memo just weeks ago after being tipped off by a local cleric who said that his religious organization was being bullied by the city for providing food that allegedly contained too much salt and fat content to the homeless or near-homeless, senior citizens who were too aged to work, and recovering drug addicts and alcoholics.

“Churches and synagogues have been bringing food to city shelters for decades,” said Stier, a lawyer and a former official in Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration. “Now they’re being turned away. Shelter managers told them they were forbidden by the city’s homeless department bureaucrats from accepting the food. The charities had to throw away the food.”

The city’s new policy seeks to prescribe the kinds of food that homeless who live in its shelters can eat, and prohibits high-fat, high-calorie foods, as well as certain kinds of condiments, Stier told TheDC.

“When news of this broke this week, the mayor’s office back-peddled and said there had always been a ban on food donations to the shelters for ‘food safety’ reasons,” Stier said. “But the ban didn’t start until the document was circulated by the interagency task force — led by the mayor’s office — on food donations to shelters. What this is really about is that the government wants to replace charities. There’s a turf battle. The government has the force of law to prevent private charities from doing charitable works. “

Those who run charitable homeless shelters in New York City are not pleased with the policy development thus far. “The mayor is spending a lot of time on something that is less important than things he should be spending his time on,” Tony Butler, executive director of the St. John’s Bread and Life shelter in Brooklyn, told TheDC. “He should focus on reducing homelessness.”

Butler’s shelter, a private charity, served 500,000 meals to the homeless in the New York City in 2011 alone, and already had to comply with a number of food safety regulations previously implemented by the mayor’s office. He noted that because of the ban, those who live in city-run shelters will not be able to accept donations of food, even from individuals, as it will not comply with the city’s policy.

“That means increased costs for people who are struggling — families who are struggling to save up enough money for rent — to get out of the city’s shelters,” Butler said. “Now they will have to have a harder time because they will have additional expenses for food.”

Butler says many homeless complain of the taste of food at city-run shelters, and that the ban may increase traffic to private shelters — at least at meal time — in the short term as the homeless seek more palatable food.

“It’s a huge scandal, the amount of people who go hungry in this country, and the government does this?” Butler said.

Other heads of charitable organizations tried to empathize with the mayor, but still had major concerns about the restrictive new policy.

“The goal is ensuring food quality and safety,” R. Brent Lang, chairman of the Community Impact Fund and director of the Surrey Foundation, told The DC. “Sounds noble, but it is restrictive and overrides current providers.”

Lang says it is “ironic” that the government is doing this now, because private charities are the originators of soup kitchens, shelters and food donations for the poor, and they “existed for centuries prior to the government recognizing this need and institutionalizing this service.”

Lang said he believes that taking care of the homeless should be left up to volunteers and philanthropists: “The lowest-cost — and most efficient — source of food to arrive in the hand and mouths of the hungry is to allow those most capable of delivering it — donors and trained volunteers — to find the solution. The nonprofit sector identifies needs and organizes to fill the gap. They do so because there is a real humanitarian need.”

But being seen as a “humanitarian,” as that word is traditionally understood, has little to do with the new policy, some say.

“The mayor has, as you know, long prided himself on cutting edge policies,” said Stier. “We’re getting lot of feedback on this, if you will pardon the pun. People are outraged. This cuts across political lines. People on the left in homeless services are concerned. The nanny state is run amuck.”

But some activists on the political left — public interest lawyers active around the country — seem to agree with the Bloomberg policy and hope it serves as a legal precedent for other big city mayors across the U.S.

In Washington, D.C., George Washington University School of Law professor John Bensaf praised Bloomberg for his activism in this instance, saying the policy may be as “effective” as the mayor’s ban on smoking in restaurants was in recent years, which, Bensaf notes, led to more public smoking bans than California’s earlier-established precedent ever did.

“What the mayor is going after here is obesity,” Bensaf said. “That is our second biggest health care cost. This is one of the things we have been fighting for.”

Bensaf has been active in using the courts to advance liberal public policy goals for years and was involved in anti-cigarette smoking litigation as well as more recent lawsuits seeking to eliminate foods with high sugar content and saturated fats.

“The problem is, and the underlying reasoning is, that by serving salty, fatty, high-calorie foods, the government is encouraging obesity among the poor,” Bensaf told TheDC. “Now they are getting out of the business of facilitating obesity.”

Gene J. Koprowski