State health officials have threatened to seek a court order to stop a local activist with the group Food Not Bombs from serving free meals without a permit in Taos Plaza.
Keith McHenry was issued a notice of violation (PDF) Saturday (June 1) by an inspector from the New Mexico Environment Department for “serving food to the general public without a valid permit.”
The Taos resident said he was helping set up for the group’s weekly meal in the Plaza that afternoon when he was approached by two people who asked for him by name.
McHenry told The Taos News they thanked him for his work and offered an application for a permit to serve food. He said he declined the permit and was then issued the notice of violation by inspector James Jenison.
“You do not need a permit,” McHenry said in an interview Tuesday (June 4). “It is our first amendment right to be out there. We do not get money. It is like a gift.”
McHenry, who helped start the now-global Food Not Bombs movement in Massachusetts three decades ago, is familiar with the legal challenges chapters of the group have faced in other communities. McHenry was jailed for his involvement in San Francisco and Orlando.
The organization has not encountered many legal difficulties in Taos since it launched here seven years ago, he said.
McHenry recalled receiving a citation from the state five years ago but said he ignored it. “I do not get involved in permit issues,” the activist said. “If you start to apply for permits to share food then that ramps up for seeking the approval of the state for all manner of activities in daily life.”
Citing the New Mexico Food Service Sanitation Act, the notice threatened to either seek a court order to stop the group from serving food without a permit or fine McHenry up to $500 for each violation.
Bob Italiano, an official at the state Environment Department, said the inspector issued the citation due to health concerns. “The problem is that there is improper food handling going on,” Italiano said.
Also at issue is whether Food Not Bombs is covered under the state law regulating food service. New Mexico State Code 25-1-7, cited in the notice issued to McHenry, requires food service establishments attain a valid permit. Groups such as Food Not Bombs argue that, in providing food for free on a temporary basis in a public space, they are not meet the definition of a food service establishment.
McHenry said he had not heard of anyone falling ill from eating a meal provided by Food Not Bombs. The group serves food within two hours of cooking, he said; the meals do not contain meat or dairy.
He said he will continue to serve free vegan meals each week as he has done around the country for 33 years.