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On Nov. 11, the Los Angeles County Health Department restricted certain types of food distribution at the Occupy Los Angeles food tent, a move that came as no surprise to some of the region’s professional cooks who have been providing hot meals to the peaceable assembly surrounding Los Angeles City Hall. For many weeks food service professionals have noticed an unusual focus by county health inspectors on commercial and nonprofit kitchens known to have donated cooked meals to OLA.
“I tried for six months to get an inspector to show up so my school could get certified, and nothing,” said Brent Boultinghouse, lead instructor for the acclaimed culinary program at Santee High School. “But the day after we serve Occupy, I’ve got an inspector at my school?”
Chef E, who works as both a private chef for celebrities and for a catering company that provides craft services for major movies and television shows, put it this way: “Who’s mad you guys?”
Under the latest restriction, the OLA food tent cannot serve any unwrapped hot or cold food that was not prepared in a certified kitchen, though it can continue to distribute commercially prepackaged food.
The amount of resources being deployed by county health to food services at OLA is disproportionate, especially considering the level of cooperation the Occupation has extended to government agencies, Chef E said.
“They don’t have that many people to spend that much time at one place,” he said. “There’s people with hot dogs wrapped in bacon all night on the streets of the city, but they’re attacking our supply lines. Why? This isn’t a war.”
Three weeks ago, a local church that had allowed OLA volunteers certified safe serve to use its kitchen was targeted by health inspectors, said Sara Chambers-Moss, who has assisted with OLA food distribution. Department supervisors made a surprise visit to the space, armed with paperwork and pointed questions.
“They were very aggressive about who was there, and where they had been cooking,” she said. “They hung out there for an hour, which was very unusual. They obviously expecting someone from Occupy to show up. They didn’t know we weren’t using (the church) anymore because of scheduling.”
What’s happening is easily explained, said Robert Egger, president of the D.C. Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that reallocates leftover food to at-risk populations in Washington, D.C. while providing job training to people transitioning from homelessness. Municipalities are trying to figure out how to shut down Occupy sites, and are deploying well-defined and regulated health codes that apply to providing meals outdoors.
“This is one of those areas where local governments can come in with pretty good cover and say that ‘we’re just doing what we always do for any outdoor event’. They can use the existing regulations,” Egger said. “It’s a legitimate thing, they do it all the time, but they have discovered this approach is perfect to apply to the Occupy movement. Inch by inch they’re chipping away at the ability to set up an encampment.”
Egger, who sometimes counsels Occupy sites about this issue, said that’s why Occupy sites should diversify how meals are provided on site.
Mud Baron, winner of the 2011 Green Shorty Award, said the best thing would be for OLA to have access to its own cooking space. If an individual or organization donated short-term use of a certified commercial kitchen for use by OLA cooks certified safe-serve, a lot of the harassment can be circumvented and taxpayer dollars wasted on extreme scrutiny of OLA’s donors put to better use, he said.
“I’ve never been in a restaurant where the health official spends the whole day in the service area like was done at Santee, and I’ve done a lot of different food events,” Baron said. “Nothing that’s happening is business as usual. If we had a space donated for one or two months, it would be harder for them to come at us.”