“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members,” Mahatma Gandhi is said to have declared. If there is even a scintilla of truth in that statement, then Georgia has a lot of soul searching to do.
That’s because the Cobb and Douglas Public Health Department has effectively shut down an important part of the Cobb County-based MUST Ministries’ operations — giving lunches to hungry children. For those unaware of MUST Ministries, it is a local nonprofit that aids Georgians who have fallen on hard times. Among other things, MUST organizes efforts to provide meals for the needy, and it has been astoundingly successful in doing so. According to WSBTV, “(MUST Ministries has) been handing out up to 7,000 free sack lunches a day for kids and families every summer” for almost 25 years. Last summer alone, MUST provided nearly 260,000 sandwiches to the needy.
But the Cobb and Douglas Public Health Department recently told MUST that it cannot do so any longer, at least not under its current system. This news came shortly before MUST was set to begin its summer sandwich program. For those depending on the aid, the timing is devastating.
But what did MUST do to attract the government’s ire?
Since MUST is largely a volunteer-driven organization, many of its sandwiches are made by churches and local volunteers at their homes. Because they do not come from a certified kitchen, a health department bureaucrat has determined that, due to government regulations, MUST Ministries’ sandwiches violate the law. Therefore, the nonprofit can no longer operate its sandwich program the way that it has been running it for over two decades.
Regulators tend to justify such actions by insisting that their intent is pure — they simply want to ensure the health and safety of the public. This sounds like a noble goal. However, the health department’s decision does the exact opposite. In the name of public welfare, the department is taking away needy children’s access to food.
This is a serious overreaction. MUST has operated this program for nearly a quarter century, and according to MUST Ministries President and CEO Ike Reighard, there has “never been a problem;” nobody has ever even gotten sick from their food. Beyond this, unless there’s an obscure sandwich law that we don’t know about, in most cases any private citizen can make a sandwich in their home, walk outside and give it away. But for some reason, MUST cannot do the same.
If the health department wants to ensure that everyone is aware of the source of MUST’s food, then perhaps a compromise can be reached. Rather than shutting down the program, health officials could ask the guardians of needy children to sign waivers acknowledging that they understand the potential risks of eating a homemade sandwich.
Regrettably, overeager enforcement of food safety codes is not unique to Georgia. Last fall, Missouri officials poured bleach on food intended for the homeless because volunteers didn’t have a permit to feed the underprivileged. For similar reasons, a Louisiana health inspector bleached 1,600 pounds of venison donated to a homeless shelter, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg went a step further, outlawing food donations to the needy altogether in the name of public health.
This issue is emblematic of what happens when overzealous bureaucrats enforce laws that aren’t particularly well conceived or defined. Other bizarre accounts include instances of officials shutting down children’s lemonade stands for operating without a proper license. Sure, some roll their eyes or chuckle at the silliness of such examples. But because the Cobb and Douglas Public Health Department is effectively wrenching sandwiches from hungry children’s grasp, the MUST Ministries situation rises to a new level.
It remains to be seen what will happen to MUST’s summertime sandwich program, but the charity is determined to persevere. Right now, its leaders are trying to alter how the program works and raise money to keep it afloat. Unfortunately, they need hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so.
This is a sad episode in Georgia’s history. The Peach State shouldn’t be making it harder for nonprofits and private citizens to feed the hungry. Georgia is better than this.
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs for the R Street Institute, and he is a longtime Cobb County, resident.
Shoshana Weissmann is R Street’s Digital Media Manager and a fellow focusing on occupational licensing reform.