Board of Health to address soup kitchen vs. potluck distinctions

Stone Soup Kitchen Potluck claims their meals are exempt from local jurisdiction

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AYER – The woman who oversees the Stone Soup Kitchen Potluck that operates out of the Living Water Fellowship Church on Littleton Road is challenging the Nashoba Associated Board of Health’s ruling that the kitchen falls under its jurisdiction.

Cyndi Lavin believes the group falls under the definition of a potluck operated by a religious group, making it exempt from regulations set out by the board.

Lavin appeared before the Ayer Board of Health on Monday, Nov. 4, to plead her case. Lavin’s issues were laid out during the public-input portion of the meeting, with many attendees supporting Lavin and her efforts.

Ayer Board of Health member Pamela Papineau said at the meeting that Lavin should be addressing her concerns to the Nashoba board since that board consists of registered sanitarians and food specialists.

“I think it’s great that you have all of this support in the community,” Board Chair Patricia Peters said. “We are not the bad guys here.”

Bridgette Braley, district sanitarian for the Nashoba Associated Board of Health assigned to Ayer, did not return multiple calls asking for comment.

The Ayer board moved to bring the issue back up at its next meeting on Monday, Nov. 18, and planned to have a representative from the Nashoba board attend the meeting as well.

It was the Ayer Board of Health that originally sent a letter to the Apple Valley Baptist Church on Columbia Street, where the soup kitchen was originally located, noting that its kitchen had to be brought up to the town’s current health code. Those preparing the meals for the less fortunate also had to be properly certified for the service to continue. That letter caused the church to suspend the potluck this past June until the kitchen renovations are completed.

Lavin said in a recent email to the Nashoba Valley Voice that she is ServSafe-certified in food management and allergens, though that certification is not legally required for potlucks while soup kitchens have different requirements.

Lavin added that the dinners being offered by the Stone Soup Kitchen Potluck meet the formal definition of potlucks laid out by state law.

According to the law, a potluck is an event that should have people gathered to share food with no compensation given to people who bring food and no commercial purposes to the event itself. The law also dictates that a potluck should have its participants informed that “neither the food nor the facilities” have been inspected by a local or state public health agency.

Lavin noted a section of the law that states that the state Department of Public Health and a local Board of Health cannot regulate food served at a potluck sponsored by a “religious, charitable or nonprofit organization.”

She added that the Nashoba Board of Health is limiting the potluck’s offerings to canned goods or food supplied by caterers.

“Those of you who have been following along with our attempts to comply already know that there are no commercial kitchens available in Ayer for our use,” Lavin’s email said. “But according to the Mass. General Laws, no church or other non-profit group needs one in order to hold potlucks.”

When asked if the food prepared and served at Apple Valley was also exempt from the Nashoba board’s jurisdiction, Lavin said she was unsure but noted that the Apple Valley location was operated and identified by the Nashoba Board as a soup kitchen.

“I believe that when the members of Apple Valley Baptist were in the kitchen and having a meal, that it was, in actuality, a potluck, but it’s possible that the line was crossed when outsiders like me began coming in on different nights,” she said. “Also, the format of the meal was slightly different, in that the kitchen crew set up trays rather than each participant going around and picking up what they wanted.”

Lavin also provided the preparation process for the monthly afternoon potluck at Living Water Fellowship. The main dishes are prepared at home and later reheated for service in the church’s kitchen by two or three members of the parish. Four to five other church members prepare breads, salads, sides and desserts, with some baked goods courtesy of Shop ‘n Save. Hot and cold dishes are presented before the meal starts, with attendees getting a plate to choose whatever they want to eat

Lavin noted that there are signs at the potluck alerting guests that “neither the facilities nor the food have been inspected.” She noted a similar process would be carried out at her proposed weekly Friday night potluck at the church.

“I am taking this on with the Board of Health not just for my own church and our ministry to the hungry and lonely, but also on behalf of several other Ayer churches and civic groups that would like to add potlucks to their calendars but are awaiting the outcome of my fight,” another email from Lavin said.