One of the corporal works of mercy is feeding the hungry. If a recent column in the Washington Post is any indication, it won't be long before the ever-growing bureaucratic state makes it criminal for Christians to exercise this act of mercy toward the homeless. According to the article, "[u]nder a tough new Fairfax County policy, residents can no longer donate food prepared in their homes or a church kitchen — be it a tuna casserole, sandwiches or even a batch of cookies — unless the kitchen is approved by the county, health officials said yesterday." The policy emerges out of a concern for the health of the homeless. The key line in the article comes from Tom Crow, the county Health Department's director of environmental health. Mr. Crow says, "‘We're not trying to come across as being a heavy-handed government.'"
But Mr. Crow knows that's exactly what this looks like: Government's heavy hand suppressing the activities of individuals and churches committed to serving the poorest among them. For a moment, put aside the absurdity of the policy. Mr. Crow inadvertently focuses our attention on the equally absurd assumption that somehow the government's job is to prohibit people from baking casseroles and cookies to distribute to other hungry people.
Why would Fairfax county officials think it is within their authority to license the distribution of food by charitable organizations? Why would they place upon these people the onerous burdens of state and county codes that require food served to the public to be prepared only in inspected and certified kitchens, the standards for which include, but are not limited to: "a commercial-grade refrigerator, a three-compartment sink to wash, rinse and sanitize dishes and a separate hand-washing sink…?"
There are at least two reasons Fairfax county officials entertain this delusion. One is what they claim, that they have the health and well-being of the homeless in mind. Here's Mr. Crow again: "‘We're dealing with a medically fragile population… so they're more susceptible to food-borne illnesses than the general population,'" He continues, "‘We're trying to protect those people.'" That is obviously a rationalization for their commitment to impose these regulations. That sounds a bit too much like my brother's claim that he drives a Volvo for the "safety." Sure, Volvos are safe cars, and sure, it's better that the homeless are not fed poisonous food. But is there any indication that the extension of the regulations comes on the heels of an epidemic of food poisonings caused by home-baked cookies and pot roasts? Not according to the article, and not according to Mr. Crow.
No, instead the real reason is the simple fact of governmental momentum towards general expansion. Governments cannot bear to see vacant spaces of community unadorned by regulatory finery. Once Fairfax County officials learned that the distribution of food at homeless shelters was unregulated, the governmental law of necessity took over: what was once unregulated shall be regulated forthwith.
The law of necessity does not shudder before illogic. Here is what the policy does: In order to "protect the health" of the homeless who, as everyone knows and the article states, often resort to eating food out of trash containers, the county has taken upon itself the responsibility of making it more difficult for the homeless to eat fresh cooked food. The medically fragile population about which Mr. Crow expresses such concern is left, not holding a bag of leftovers from a meal at a shelter, but foraging in trashcans for something less appetizing, and clearly less safe. How is this not a stupid thing to do?
Joseph Capizzi is Fellow in Religion for the Culture of Life Foundation and Associate Professor of Religion at Catholic University of America.