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Health Officials Ban Home-Cooked Meals from Va. County Shelters

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Nov 30, 2006 08:54 AM EST

FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) - From now on, feeding the homeless in Fairfax County will require more than just a big heart. You'll also need a commercial-grade refrigerator, a three-compartment sink and county certification.

Officials said this week that a new campaign to enforce the county food code at shelters is aimed at preventing food poisoning among the homeless. But operators of shelters said forcing them to reject donations of sandwiches or casseroles prepared at home or in church kitchens is not in the best interest of their clients because it will make it harder to provide them with healthy, hot meals.

"We're very aware that a number of homeless people eat out of Dumpsters, and Mom's pot roast has got to be healthier than that," said Jim Brigl, chief executive of Fairfax Area Christian Emergency & Transitional Services. "But that doesn't meet the code."

Officials estimate that about 2,000 people are homeless in Fairfax County, and the number of shelters swells to more than three dozen during the winter months.

The Health Department said it began taking a closer look at the issue after receiving a complaint last year about food being served to the homeless in churches.

Under state and county code, food served to the public must be prepared in a kitchen that has been certified by the county Health Department. Among other things, certification requires a commercial-grade refrigerator, a three-compartment sink to wash, rinse and sanitize dishes and a separate hand-washing sink.

Health officials said they had not been aware that food from unapproved kitchens was being served in homeless shelters.

"We're dealing with a medically fragile population ... so they're more susceptible to food-borne illnesses than the general population," said Tom Crow, the county Health Department's director of environmental health. "We're trying to protect those people."

To help churches meet the requirements, the Health Department is waiving the $60 fee for certification and is holding safe food-handling classes for church volunteers. It also is giving churches that do not have approved kitchens a list of other houses of worship with such facilities. And officials issued a temporary permit to one church that is hosting a shelter for just two days, waiving many of the requirements, county spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said.

But ministers from several of the two dozen churches that are part of a network of wintertime shelters said they oppose the crackdown and hope the Health Department backs off.

"Why do (they) think that the traditional way of fixing a home-cooked meal is going to poison people off the street?" asked the Rev. Judy Fender of Burke United Methodist Church.

She added: "I'm probably going to be in prayer that something is going to give on this."

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