Recommended Food Code Changes Would Facilitate Street Feeding, With Some Caveats

Joan Cheever signs a citation issued to her on April 7. - David Martin Davies/Texas Public Radio
David Martin Davies/Texas Public Radio
Joan Cheever signs a citation issued to her on April 7.

City of San Antonio officials today recommended changing the city’s food code to facilitate feeding the homeless and hungry on San Antonio’s streets by waiving fees and permit requirements for charitable organizations.

The proposed changes are designed to “allow charitable feeders to continue to do good works while also providing public safety,” said Melody Woosley, director of the city's Department of Human Services. The food code does not currently have a provision related to charitable feeding.

Woosley presented the changes to the City Council Housing Committee. The issue was initially under the jurisdiction of the City Council Quality of Life Committee, but that panel was dissolved earlier this summer in a restructuring process.

The food code’s relationship to the street feeders has been a point of contention since April 7, when Joan Cheever, who runs The Chow Train, a non-profit mobile food service that feeds San Antonio’s hungry, received a $2,000 citation for serving food without a permit in Maverick Park.

Although the city later dismissed the ticket, it sparked a conversation about balancing the city’s existing ordinances and liability with charitable works. Cheever is working with lawyers from the Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld law firm on a legal challenge to the city’s food code if no changes are adopted.

Under the new rules, charitable feeders would have to:

-give notice to the Health Department 24 hours before or after an event (although city staff seemed amenable to scheduling standing events in advance)

-remove undistributed food from the site

-pick up trash and waste from the site

-have one person on site with food handler/food manager certification (the city would waive the $15 fee for the training through a fund established by Councilman Cris Medina)

Charitable feeders who just distribute prepackaged food or whole fruits and vegetables would not have to obtain certification.

Cheever called the proposed changes “a step in the right direction,” though she said she and other street feeders had less than 24 hours to review the proposal before the meeting. To that end, Councilmen Rey Saldana and Ron Nirenberg both urged a slow, deliberative approach that solicited plenty of public input.

Cheever was concerned about several of the provisions, most notably requiring street feeders in the downtown area to obtain a Mobile Food Vending Permit from the city. She suggested that it could be part of an effort to “sweep” homeless people out of the tourist-dense center city.

“The bible says you treat people where they are. You take care of the poor where you are,” Cheever said.

City officials denied that the downtown permit requirements were “sweeps.” In drawing the boundaries, city staff said they went out of their way to ensure that permits were not required in areas on the fringe of downtown where most street feeding operations occur.

“Most of the charitable feeding is occurring on the edges of downtown, which have been removed from the zone where a mobile vending permit is required,” Woosley said.

The Housing Commission voted to bring the ordinance changes before the entire City Council during a B-Session, likely in November or December. The recommendations won’t take effect until they’re approved by the entire Council.


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