Nationwide, an estimated 20,000 eaters in 300 different cities joined in the giant potluck, which was organized by Slow Food USA and called for measures such as allotting $1 more per child per day to help pay for more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in school lunches.
But Cail’s event in Ithaca did not go as planned.
“Unfortunately, the Tompkins County Health Department intervened in our event in a most counter-productive manner,” Cail said. “After seeing an invitation to attend that I had posted to a listserv, they called threatening me with a ‘cease and desist order’ for staging a public potluck picnic.” In order to comply with the Health Department, she says she composed an email for the listserv to un-invite the public and reviewed the wording with a Health Department employee.
The NYS Sanitary Code for Temporary Events (Section 14-2) requires a permit to serve food to the public. The food must also be prepared according to public health standards. It does not apply to private events held among friends, neighbors, or members of a club, for example. Different rules apply to churches.
The issue is sharing food in an open and public venue, according to Tompkins County Director of Environmental Health Liz Cameron and Public Health Sanitarian Carol Chase, and the intent of the rule is to prevent food-borne illnesses caused by improper food handling. Those in violation are served with a written notice and brought before the Tompkins County Board of Health.
From a public health perspective, there is no difference between sharing and serving food, according to Cameron and Chase. They suggest having people bring and eat their own food to an event instead of hosting a public potluck.
According to the CDC, more than 20,000 cases of food poisoning were reported in the US in 2005. Only 50 were directly linked to potlucks. About 550 were attributed to picnics.
The irony of this particular situation, Cail says, is just too great. Poor food storage at picnics can cause food poisoning, but the illness is usually mild. Compare that, she says, to the issues she was trying to highlight with the potluck: alarming rates of obesity and diabetes that stand to shorten our children’s lifespans. (about 21% of children in upstate NYS are obese)
"All I wanted for my birthday was to raise awareness,” she said.
Around the country, potluck rules vary. In April, members of Food Not Bombs in Connecticut were brought before the Hartford health department for hosting potlucks that do not comply with regulations. In 2004 and 2005, respectively, Washington State and Illinois changed their regulations to make potlucks exempt from health department rules.
In Ithaca, Cail’s private potluck still took place. Although only a handful of people attended, the group brainstormed ideas to help improve school lunches. Hosting a school lunch recipe contest would highlight tight school lunch budgets and hopefully provide some creative solutions, she said.