David Hill figures he feeds about 300 homeless people a month near the corner of William and Main, where he’s been serving hot food every third Saturday for the past two years.
But the police didn’t show up until this fall. The officer asked to see his food safety permit.
“I didn’t know we needed one,” he said.
Hill has been working with the city and state officials so he can continue offering his service, which included feeding 500 people on Thanksgiving Day.
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“They gave us a temporary permit now, and we’re supposed to meet with someone from the city, but we don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Hill, who runs his feeding program as part of his One Spark charity.
The city of Wichita referred questions to the Kansas Department of Agriculture, which oversees food safety permits. State officials say the city’s environmental services division is the local enforcement arm of the state permits. The requirement is not to keep people from serving those in need, officials say, but to make sure it’s done safely.
“This particular population can be vulnerable, when they’re homeless and out on the street, so we want to make sure everyone has access to safe food,” said Adam Inman, education, training and enforcement manager for the Department of Agriculture.
Hill said he’s talked to both city and state officials about getting a permit, and so far he hasn’t received any citations. He said Wichita police, working with Capt. Troy Livingston, have been helpful.
“I think if it wouldn’t have been for the Wichita Police Department, we’d have been in trouble,” Hill said. “They have stepped up and said we should be able to feed.”
It’s not the first time someone trying to feed the needy has run into permit problems.
Rev. Shedra Moore ran a feeding program in a downtown park for four years, before the city began charging her a $25-an-hour permit fee in 1999. After complaints from other services, such as Inter-Faith Ministries, the City Council lifted the fee for Moore.
Moore, minister of The Word of the Lord International Church, has continued to feed the homeless. She now holds her Thanksgiving dinner through a licensed restaurant, Bishop’s Family Dining, on West Kellogg.
Hill operates his program through One Spark, which started in Wichita and has built a following by encouraging people to pass on what Hill calls “random acts of kindness.”
In Wichita, One Spark collects coats for the needy and blankets for cancer patients. It has more than 8,000 followers on its Facebook page.
“I’d put what we do up against anyone in town,” Hill said. “We’ve seen people in Africa, New Zealand. We’ve seen it all over the world.”
Hill said the group has federal nonprofit status. The Department of Agriculture has a program to waive permit fees for nonprofits.
“That is a way for them to obtain a license and make sure they are in compliance without actually having to obtain a licensing fee,” said Chelsea Good, communications director for the Department of Agriculture.
State and city officials are charged with enforcing food safety guidelines.
“There are unique challenges with mobile food services,” Inman said. “Some of the things you take for granted like hot and cold running water in a building, you have to make arrangements to have those when you’re out and about. So that takes some planning.”
Hill said he understands that food needs to be safely prepared and served. One Spark prepares its dinners in a commercial kitchen at Central Community Church. Hill said meat is cooked in grills on the streets where it’s served and is maintained at safe temperatures.
“We’ve been doing this for two years and never had an incident,” Hill said. “The question I have is if we have to stop doing this, who is going to take our place?”
The police made their initial visit after a complaint by a neighboring business, Hill said.
Hill plans to hold another dinner on the third Saturday in December.
He said he hopes to have a permit worked out with the city by then.