For the past 15 months, Bobby and Amanda Herring say God provided the food for their homeless outreach near the Harris County Jail in Houston, but apparently God forgot to pick up a permit.
That’s put Feed A Friend, their nonprofit mission of providing warm meals to Houston street people, at odds with the city’s Department of Health and Human Services rules for food vendors.
Feed A Friend volunteers prepare hot meals in several individual homes, not in a licensed kitchen with a certified food manager, as the city requires. For most of its existence, the charity distributed meals to the hungry at the corner of Commerce and San Jacinto without anyone raising objections.
Then Houston Police asked the Herrings to move the distribution nearby to Commerce and Travis. It was after that Houston parks and police officials began pressing the permit issue.
The Herrings and officials with the Department of Health and Human Services were talking past each other on Friday as the story of “Houston forbids good Samaritans from feeding homeless” went viral.
It was the “Daily Outrage” for the San Francisco Examiner on Saturday, and the story was getting hourly play on the cable news shows. Bobby Herring, who is also a Christian rapper, expressed concern about not being able to provide meals on Martin Luther King Day.
Kathy Barton, spokeswoman for Health and Human Services, said the Houston Food Ordinance imposes the same preparation standards for free food as it does for marketed food. To do otherwise, she said, would amount to having different standards of sanitation and food protection for poor people than for people with money.
Barton said new ordinance language is being pursued that would allow public food programs under a no-fee registration procedure. Under the language being prepared, Health and Human Services would provide no cost training for certified food managers working for charities. Under Houston’s current law, a daily permit costs $17 a day and a charity is considered an event vendor.
The Herrings first began handling out meals on Houston streets in November 2009 with food left over from an auction. The couple decided to continue feeding the hungry “as long as God provided the food.”