Meals for Kitchener homeless stop over 'red tape,' organizer says

Michelle Myers of A Hand Up for the Homeless K-W says she's going to stop providing weekly meals to people living on the street in downtown Kitchener because she's been told she needs to rent a commercial kitchen to prep the food.

Volunteers were making hot food at home, not in an inspected kitchen

Michelle Myers started A Hand Up for the Homeless K-W in March 2016 by walking around and handing out sandwiches she had made. It grew to some days feeding more than 200 people in front of Kitchener City Hall. (A Hand Up for the Homeless K-W/Facebook)

A grassroots group of volunteers who have been handing out free meals to homeless people in Kitchener's downtown say red tape is forcing them to stop.

Michelle Myers started A Hand Up for the Homeless K-W in March 2016. She walked around with a backpack full of homemade sandwiches, handing them out.

That morphed into weekly hot meals of chili and pasta made by volunteers in their own crock pots at home. The meals also included salad and dessert and were spread out on tables in front of city hall – tables Myers said city hall security staff helped set up. Sometimes they'd also hand out clothing. Some days, they'd serve more than 200 people.

But in mid-September, Myers said a public health inspector came by and told her what she was doing was against the law.

She said the inspector said they couldn't serve any food they had made themselves unless it was prepared in a commercial kitchen and they required an event permit to serve the food.

"It's just become a lot of red tape," a frustrated Myers told CBC News in an interview.

"For the $300 it would cost me to go chop a few vegetables in a [rented] 'commercial kitchen,' I can feed 200 people."

'Beautiful thing'

Myers said she suffered a concussion a few years ago and she lost everything. If it wasn't for the support of family and friends, she said she would have lost hope.

Back on her feet, she wanted to extend that same hope to people living on the streets. She grabbed a couple of friends and they started handing out food and water to people passing by.

She said the people she met through her efforts really appreciated the food.

"The tears in their eyes as they're walking through saying, 'You did all this for me?'" she recalled, tearing up herself.

The community stepped up, too, she said. Families and students baked cookies and wrote notes to go with them.

"It was a pretty beautiful thing," she said.

On the Facebook group for the meals, one person wrote, "As someone who required your services, I've greatly appreciated what you started and did not just for the homeless, but those of us on government assistance ... I didn't come every week, but on the weeks I needed it, it has been very helpful." 

While food like bananas are OK to hand out, cookies or other items made in people's homes are not, Region of Waterloo Public Health says. That's because unless the items are made in commercial kitchens, it can't be ensured the food was prepared in a safe manner. (A hand Up for the Homeless K-W/Facebook)

Rules meant for safety

Aldo Franco agrees it is a great thing Myers and the other volunteers were doing, but health inspectors need to ensure the food being served is safe.

"In these situations, we want to work with the organizers," Franco, the manager of health protection and investigation with the region, told CBC News. "We welcome the opportunity to work with these organizations and we can provide them with information to help them source, prepare and serve food that is safe."

In this case, he said the inspector identified a suitable kitchen for the volunteers to use and explained the minimum standard for food handling to ensure food was prepared safely.

Although it's a great gesture to hand out something as simple as a sandwich, Franco said people wanting to do that should go buy a premade one.

"We don't recommend or encourage people to do that, however, having said that, at that scale it's difficult to monitor and track individuals," he said. "If residents want to contribute they can obviously purchase food from stores or locations that are inspected." 

Volunteers handed out meals to people living on the streets in downtown Kitchener on a weekly basis. (A Hand Up for the Homeless K-W/Facebook)

Too much work, now

Myers said she understands the rules. But the nice thing about what they were doing is she and the volunteers could prepare all the food at home while also doing other things. To go into a commercial kitchen would take much more time and would also cost money – money they don't have.

They also don't have money to buy prepackaged foods to hand out. She said while they've done a little bit of fundraising, for the most part the food handed out was paid for by volunteers or donated by people wanting to help the cause.

"As hard as it is for me to say, you know, it's a thing of the past, I have to let it go," she said. There aren't "enough hours in my day for me to even do it by myself anymore," she said.

She is hoping to do one last meal at the end of the month, but Myers said she hopes what she started will inspire others to help those living on the streets. She suggested people could buy gift cards and hand them out without getting into trouble.

"Nobody can give you shit for a Tim Hortons card," she said.

"I started a fire," she said of the weekly meals. "I want it to continue."