This year, Philadelphia Mayor, Michael Nutter’s controversial ban on outdoor serving of food garnered nationwide attention; however, efforts to propose comprehensive solutions to address Philadelphia’s critical food insecurity issues were largely left unnoticed.
The outdoor serving of food ban was implemented through two regulations: one promulgated through the City’s Board of Health and the other through the Department of Parks and Recreation. In short, the Board of Health regulation required outdoor servers of food to obtain food safety and handling training and the Department of Parks and Recreation regulation prohibited the serving of food to three or more members of the public within a City park without acquiring a special event permit prior to the distribution. While the regulations applied to all parks within the City, it disproportionately impacted individuals who served food along the Ben Franklin Parkway, since that is where many homeless individuals gathered for meals.
Plaintiff food servers brought suit against the Mayor and the City claiming that the regulations violated their constitutional right of Freedom of Religion. The plaintiffs claimed that serving food to individuals in need was a religious calling and often part of a religious ceremony or practice. Judge Yohn, who presided over the case, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and granted an injunction for the Parks and Recreation regulation; however, he allowed enforcement of the Board of Health regulation. In his ruling the Judge cited to a need for a long term solution in Philadelphia for food insecurity.
While the regulations and the suit that followed received much attention from the national and local press, another effort by Mayor Nutter to address food insecurity went largely left unmentioned. Following the implementation of the regulations and prior to Judge Yohn’s decision, Mayor Nutter convened a Task Force on Outdoor Serving of Food comprised of indoor and outdoor food servers, individuals who have previously sought free food services, and representation from City government. The task force was led by Dr. Arthur Evans, Commissioner of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS).
As an assistant to the project, I personally witnessed the Task Force work diligently over a three-month period to analyze the complex situation, including the reasons why individuals sought outdoor food services and the motivation of groups to serve food outdoors. The Task Force collected data from both those in need and those that provided services and identified key core issues and proposed comprehensive recommendations to the issues. The Mayor accepted the Task Force’s report with a commitment to implement some of the recommendations. Specifically, the Mayor stated that he would identify leadership within his office to lead efforts aimed at reducing food insecurity in the City.
Certainly, policies that risk impeding on individuals’ rights should continue to be vetted publicly and through the judicial system. However, the spotlight should not be diverted away from issues and efforts that lack a certain level of “controversy” but may present feasible solutions to those issues that are being disputed.