Christine Stuart photo

During Tuesday’s day-long hearing on the cease and desist order issued to a vegetarian peace group, Middletown Health Department officials testified that they attempted to help bring the group into compliance.

Acting on an anonymous complaint from a citizen in October 2008, Salvatore Nesci, chief public health sanitarian, said his department began an investigation of the Food Not Bombs Middletown chapter.

“We don’t want to see them stop, we just want to see them do it the right way,” Nesci testified.

Nesci said the first time he paid a visit to the group was back in November 2008 during hunting season as he was returning to town from the range. He said he observed pots of prepared food which weren’t covered by sneeze guards. He said members of the group were also dispensing food without gloves and using the same utensils for multiple pots of food.

Nesci said he spoke to the group as a whole, but was unable to identify anyone individual who was there during the encounter. The attorney’s representing members of Food Not Bombs objected to the testimony saying it was more than hearsay and the state Department of Public Health hearing officer Stacy Owens said she would give the testimony its due weight.

When asked by Peter Goselin, one of the attorney’s representing Food Not Bombs members, if lemonade stands, bake sales, or potluck suppers fall under the Middletown Health code, Manfred Rehm, the lead sanitarian in the case, said “no.”

“There’s nothing potentially hazardous about a lemonade stand,” Rehm said. “As far as I know we don’t stop kids or people selling cookies on their front lawns.”

During his testimony Nesci said the reason Food Not Bombs is regulated is because it participates in the activity every Sunday afternoon when the St. Vincent DePaul soup kitchen is closed.

He said because the groups activities are routine they qualify as a retail establishment and are subject to regulation under the municipal and state health code.

Nesci said there were attempts to find a compromise solution to the issue. He said St. Vincent DePaul volunteered to open its kitchen to the group on Sunday’s and the owner of the Buttonwood Tree agreed to be the qualified food operator for the weekly meal.

“Their work is admirable,” Nesci said. “It needs to be brought into compliance so we can all work together.”

But members of Food Not Bombs believed such a compromise would violate their beliefs.

Food Not Bombs does not “dispense food” in the manner that the city’s health code regulates, like a restaurant or a soup kitchen. Instead, Food Not Bombs gathers as a community to share food, in the form of a potluck, as a statement of equality and abundance. 

Members of Food Not Bombs are expected to testify when the hearing continues. Lowe said the only thing she was going to consider in this case is whether the health code was properly applied to the group. She said the constitutional issues were not within her jurisdiction.

Food Not Bombs has also filed an injunction in federal court. In that lawsuit they argue the case and desist order is a violation of their First Amendment rights.

Click here to read our previous report.

The hearing will continue in mid-September. Attorney’s for Food Not Bombs have yet to present any of their witnesses and ran out of time Tuesday to cross-examine Nesci, who will take the stand again when the hearing is continued.