Loaves and Fishes Trying to Meet Health Department Regulations

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COLUMBIA – Requirements by the Columbia Health and Human Services Department are making it harder for one free soup kitchen to operate.

Ruth O'Neil is the kitchen manager at The Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen located in the United Methodists Church on Wilkes Boulevard. She said volunteers often bring in food made in their own homes, which violates health department regulations.  

O'Neil said about 25 different volunteer groups run the Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen, some coming from religious organizations, others simply volunteer groups.  O'Neil said the other volunteers and herself have jobs outside of their volunteer work at the soup kitchen, and sometimes it is just not practical to cook everything at the church.  She sees her work as a volunteer as a "ministry, not an industry."  

No one has reported having food poisoning as a result of the food served at Loaves and Fishes as of now.

The Salvation Army's Harbor House has to comply with the same standards.  Cyndy Chapman, area director of development, said it is important to know the rules and know how to apply them.  

The health department has rules governing food preparation and storage ranging from how to thaw a particular frozen item to how long to cook a certain piece of meat.  The regulations go into exact temperature barriers for food storage as well.

"Our goal is never to put a food service establishment out of business," said Kala Wekenborg-Tomka, a public health supervisor.

The regulations require non-profit groups that make and donate food to operate like a commercial kitchen. Wekenborg-Tomka says the regulations are in place for public safety reasons, not to impose restricting regulations on charitable organizations.

Last October the health department worked out a deal with Loaves and Fishes to have their kitchen completely up to standards within a year to 18 months.

Loaves and Fishes has been serving dinners to the public for over 30 years.