Tougher rules for church dinners

Health concerns prompt county to act on nonprofits

March 31, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

For years, Baltimore County churches and other nonprofit groups have been able to hold fund-raising dinners and lunches without the permits required of restaurants.

But this week, in a move that county officials say is a public health necessity, the Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management is toughening the rules.

David Carroll, the department's director, justified stricter rules by saying that "the greatest outbreaks" of food-related illness in Maryland had occurred in noncommercial establishments advertising and selling food to the public.

"The next logical step is, `Let's do something. Let's not let this continue,'" he said.

Starting tomorrow, any church or nonprofit group that wants to charge the public for food must obtain an annual "food service facility" permit, which means complying with expanded kitchen regulations.

The bulk of the county's food-serving nonprofit groups, such as Knights of Columbus halls and volunteer fire companies, meet most of the new requirements, Carroll said, adding that about 140 county churches now have annual food permits.

But some smaller congregations are worried about how they will bring their kitchens up to code.

Baltimore County Council members have fielded some calls on the issue, mostly from constituents worried about the fate of their long-held church suppers.

"I've gotten a number of complaints about it," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire. "I think it's very unfortunate because I've gone to lots of church suppers -- I like to do that. Some of the best food I've ever eaten has been at church suppers."

Beyond fund raising, he said, the church suppers offer a chance for residents and congregants to get together. But McIntire also said he understands why the tougher regulations are needed.

"There is a track record, as you know, where a number of food-related illnesses have occurred at public-related suppers," he said.

No serious illnesses have been linked to Baltimore County church suppers, Carroll said. But experiences in other counties show the necessity of pro-active regulations.

In one of the state's worst cases, an 81-year-old woman died after eating contaminated stuffed ham at a St. Mary's County church supper in 1997.

The new Baltimore County regulations do not apply to church functions or to dinners served exclusively to congregation members.

Churches with a tradition of community suppers are now trying to decide whether they want to spend the money to come up to code.

The Rev. Bruce Frame of Wiseburg United Methodist Church near White Hall said his congregation recently decided that its twice-a-year chicken barbecue dinners were too important to lose. His church decided to pay $15,000 to upgrade its kitchen and meet the county's regulations.

"There was a lot of prayer, a lot of concern and a lot of thought that went into this," he said. "In the end, when we looked at it, we decided that this was a very important ministry for our people, for the community."

He also said jokingly, "I was told when I first came here, one of the pastor's jobs is to peel potatoes for the potato salad," he said.

Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said that many Catholic churches approve of the expanded regulations.

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