Food Police

If your Lenten resolutions include bringing food to the homeless, do not take it to any government-run facility in town. You will be turned away. Recently the Bloomberg administration put the kibosh on purveyors of politically incorrect foods; and that would include your mom’s home-cooking, corned beef and cabbage from your parish St. Patrick’s dance caterer and any other suspicious comestibles whose nutritional content the Dept. of Homeless Services (DHS) cannot assess. Neither our city’s homeless nor those who want to feed them will find this good news.
What looms ahead for the good Samaritan trying to reach a hungry neighbor in need personally without a pat down from the “food police”? Will private and church-run food kitchens be next on the censor’s list?
The goal of improving the nutrition of all New Yorkers is certainly rational enough from a public health perspective. Good health makes for less illness. The less illness the fewer burdens on healthcare providers and the costs engendered. The relationship between good diet and good health, however, while directly proportional, is by no means as quantifiable among nutritionists as the ban would seem to imply.
How can it really be determined that our homeless will be better off for being deprived of the good Jewish cooking provided for over a decade by a team of food-delivery volunteers from Ohab Zedek, an Upper West Side Orthodox congregation? Like many houses of worship throughout our city, this community has formed personal relationships with individuals — many of them senior citizens recovering from drug and alcohol abuse — who have been nourished not only from the delicious food that fills their stomachs, but also the warm hearts of their gracious friends. So maybe the occasional goodies coming from the synagogue might contain an extra pinch of Kosher salt — where is the harm?
A new DHS interagency document reportedly controls down to the last milligram every item that can be served at government-run homeless shelters and facilities — not just to serving sizes, but also salt, fat and calorie contents, as well as fiber minimums and condiment recommendations. Talk about micromanagement! But in a larger figure so much charity is now being rejected which could arguably have done more for the whole person than the omission of a few extra calories or grains of salt.
Is there a saner way of doing this? Government has a legitimate role in providing a safety net for citizens to protect them from ills that may befall them over which they have little control. For this and other reasons, Catholic teaching has always supported programs and policies that ensure adequate health care for all citizens. For centuries the Church’s commitment to caring for the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society has been admirably demonstrated in this country through our hospitals, childcare facilities, homeless outreach centers, soup kitchens and countless other services — many of which function on a local level. Such care and solace has been extended to so many persons, regardless of their religious beliefs. It is emblematic of what the Church really is: among other things — but never more fundamentally — a family of family and family for those without family.
The real issue at stake here, however, is a very narrow, myopic and de-personalizing view of health and healthcare, reducing it to a merely physical, almost chemical deployment of feeding-lines into the digestive system. It may sound quaint in our frenetic world, but there is still a difference between a steam table and family meal. At least their ought to be. In the face of this and tough economic challenges, our parishes should redouble their efforts to reach out to the homeless, aging and ailing in our neighborhoods, defining by living witness what the Gospel of mercy is: good news to the poor.