Health Crisis Adverted

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By Craig Richards,

PETERSBURG – A ministry trying to help may have inadvertently put people at risk in the process. But being operated on private property left the city with few options to address it. 

When Pastor Nike Onadipe of Women of Virtue Ministry saw people pulling food out of a garbage can on Sycamore Street, she decided to do something about it. That decision created both an answer and a potential problem.

Bread, milk, fruits, vegetables, cakes, and other foods were placed on a table in front of the Bethel International Church of Christ for many weeks. The bulk of the items were purchased by Pastor Onadipe herself. But that table would remain unattended and in direct sunlight. So, an answer to help serve the needy also became a question of safety in the form of a likely danger - foodborne illness.

Over the course of a week, these items would remain there unattended for multiple days, hours at a time. The tables could be seen full of products day and night.  According to the Food and Drug Administration, (FDA), leaving perishable foods out for two hours or more allows bacteria to multiply rapidly — and can put you at serious risk of contracting foodborne illness. Leaving food out for too long even in room temperature can invite bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella, and E. coli to grow, which could ultimately cause foodborne illness, according to Meredith Carothers, the technical information specialist at the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

But the Pastor’s focus was admittedly not on the procedure as much as the purpose. “I saw the need. People need food,” Pastor Onadipe said. “What got me doing this is I saw people eating from that garbage can,” she said pointing to a nearby trash container. “When I see people eating from a garbage can, it hurts my heart.”

It was not expired, but food like fruits, some vegetables and milk are subject to harsher affects from being out unrefrigerated. And although the Pastor said she removed the milk when she felt it was no longer safe, the trash was within a few feet of the table on the sidewalk.

Brad Shupp, the Property Maintenance official for the City of Petersburg had made plans to request right of way to ensure obstructions are not on city sidewalk. But he said the issue of the food itself fell under the Health Department.

A call last week to the Health Department resulted in an agent visiting the site and trying to contact someone in the building to no avail. Unfortunately, the official said the Health Department had no jurisdiction over the church when it came to the food and the likelihood of contamination from being left unattended for days.Traditionally the city has taken the stance of  “eater beware” or “eat at your own risk” when it comes to overseeing food banks and churches.

Staff inside the city say there isn’t much they can do about it. It is legal for churches and non-profits to leave out cakes and breads in these situations. But seven days and a few phone calls later found city officials questioning those regulations and looking for ways to address the issue.

While individual departments were feeling restrained from action, a couple councilors were not. One councilor was unaware of the situation but willing to act after hearing the details. “I’ll talk to the city manager and see if we can get it taken up and watch and see who’s putting it out there,” said Councilor Darrin Hill. Another councilor, Annette Smith-Lee, was not aware of the issue either, but immediately agreed to act contacting the Deputy City Manager to see what could be done. Hill later returned a call saying that the city was removing the items. Smith-Lee also called back saying the health department was trying to reach the church again.

The Interim City Manager Kenneth Miller had only recently become aware of the situation. When explained that it could be a public health crisis and the act, while presumably attempting to be a good deed, could prove negligent and dangerous, Miller replied that the “points are well taken,” and that he had the police chief attempting to contact the church. In the end the inside effort of councilors and city management created an opportunity to rectify the danger.

On the afternoon of Friday April 16th, a representative from the health department met with the Pastor and reviewed safe practices for handling food. Pastor Onadipe said she was not aware of many of these procedures and was focused merely on providing good food to those in need of it.

Going forward she said she was going to “reevaluate what she needs to do to serve them properly and well,” as the health official explained to her. She said she did not mean for that to be an issue. 

For now, the site has temporarily dis-continued their food ministry. In a COVID 19 world littered with regulations to mandate public safety action this food source prone to contamination by the distribution method was not left to public discretion.

In this case the city leadership acted. What remains to be seen is if a proactive preventative policy for this location or others will be instituted to ensure no further dangers arise to the citizens of Petersburg.

Pastor Onadipe is planning on continuing ministry work for those in need. Individuals or organizations wishing to assist the Pastor and her ministry may contact her at 804-490-5850.

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