Food Fight

CLIENTS OF ONE of the Twin Cities' oldest soup kitchens were recently treated to a meal that consisted of a hot dog, a bag of chips, and a glass of water--a sign, they say, that bolsters their fears that its executive director has cut back on the quality and quantity of its food in order to keep the books balanced. The spartan meals at House of Charity's (HOC) Food Centre, they complain, is causing harm to the very clients the south Minneapolis charity purports to help.

According to a former HOC staffer, a local physician is filing a vulnerable adult complaint, a request to investigate alleged wrongdoings by an individual or agency, with Hennepin County. In this instance, a female patient with a "major medical condition" requires a diet high in protein and fruit. Despite numerous requests, and a written order from her physician, the Centre has refused to accommodate her needs. Another Food Centre client, an HIV-positive man, similarly claims that the food jeopardizes his already fragile health because of its poor nutritional value. Other clients complain of poor sanitary conditions and a lack of security.

Food Centre Director Ed Eide, however, defends the charity's record, noting that complaints go hand-in-hand with operating a soup kitchen on a shoestring. Since 1954, House of Charity has been relying on the generosity of others for its operating costs, including the 500-900 meals dished up at its Food Centre every day. Many come from Day By Day, a neighboring halfway house run by HOC for indigent, chemically dependent men. Many of the kitchen's remaining clients come from Catholic Charities (CC), which contracts with HOC to provide noon-time meals.

According to CC administrator Allison Boisvert, CC pays a flat $2.73 for the meal, whether it's a hot dog or a hot turkey dinner. And while the contract doesn't spell out what constitutes a meal, Boisvert says "it has to be nutritious and prepared according to health code requirements."

Which, clients complain, isn't happening. "You now have to have a [doctor's] prescription in order to get a glass of milk," says Krag Skilbeck, a former food service worker who eats at HOC. "This is completely out of line....The food isn't being kept hot or cold enough." HOC's critics also charge that the facility is dirty. According to a former employee, staffers encountered "mice with babies nesting in the potatoes." Clients say kitchen workers don't wash their hands or use hair restraints.

Minneapolis Health Department Supervisor Orrin Larson, says that although in the past HOC has been tagged with other health code violations, inspectors haven't seen signs of rodents. "There were some unlabeled sanitizing bottles, and the water in the dish machine was about 10 degrees low," Larson says of a recent inspection. "But we didn't identify anything that could cause a food-borne illness." Staffers assured inspectors that "they always wash their hands."

Day by Day residents are also upset by what they perceive as a lack of security at the kitchen. When trouble breaks out, says resident Steve Ahlberg, clients have to act as bouncers--doubly difficult since there isn't a phone at the Centre. Inner-city shelters and food lines frequently have security, but Eide counters that he wants "to be welcoming to all people in the community, so we aren't a security-enforced location."

Eide attributes gripes about the food and about his business practices to the demographics of HOC's clients. "We deal with people that are mentally ill and chemically dependent. And with this population, there's always lots of rumors and innuendos," he says. "We have obvious limitations. We have never served milk with every meal, and seconds are dependent on what's being served and to how many." Eide says the hot dog meal was an anomaly--although wieners were on the menu again when City Pages dropped in to photograph the food line for this story. HOC "adheres to basic dietary guidelines for adults," he says, and complies with the special dietary requests of two HOC clients.

Whether the complaint filed with county officials results in an investigation is anyone's guess. One complaint about poor nutrition is likely to be low on Hennepin County social service officials' priorities, and even if a probe were ordered, HOC would most likely receive recommendations for improvements. Meanwhile, Ahlberg says that he and other clients are making a bid to take over Eide's operation. The last thing anyone wants is to close the Centre down. "It provides a valuable service to the community," he says. "We just want to see it run properly."

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