Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Regulating charity

Imagine that you encountered a hungry person and, rather than handing them money, instead decided to cook them a meal. While perhaps you don't consider this action anything heroic, at the very least it would seem to mark you as a responsible, caring citizen. In Houston, however, you would be viewed as a criminal:
Bobby and Amanda Herring spent more than a year providing food to homeless people in downtown Houston every day. They fed them, left behind no trash and doled out warm meals peacefully without a single crime being committed, Bobby Herring said.

That ended two weeks ago when the city shut down their "Feed a Friend" effort for lack of a permit. And city officials say the couple most likely will not be able to obtain one.

...Anyone serving food for public consumption, whether for the homeless or for sale, must have a permit, said Kathy Barton, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department. To get that permit, the food must be prepared in a certified kitchen with a certified food manager.

The regulations are all the more essential in the case of the homeless, Barton said, because "poor people are the most vulnerable to foodborne illness and also are the least likely to have access to health care."

Bobby Herring said those rules would preclude them from continuing to feed the 60 to 120 people they assisted nightly for more than a year. The food had been donated from area businesses and prepared in various kitchens by volunteers or by his wife.
This story nicely captures so much of what is wrong with regulatory state. It first assumes that people are stupid, evil or some combination thereof, in this example either on the part of the homeless for eating poisoned food or the preparers for making it. Second, it acts as a barrier to the provision a useful service or product, and may cause its provision to cease altogether. Third, it may even be counter-productive. Instead of having access to home-cooked meals, for example, the homeless may instead resort to other options such as dumpster-diving, which runs a much higher risk of contracting a food-borne illness than the meals they were previously receiving.

While these regulations were presumably put in place to protect the homeless either from themselves or others, it is rather apparent that what they really need protection from is such mush-brained paternalism.

But let's dig a little deeper into the issue and attempt to figure out what would be required if one wanted to serve the homeless in proper government-approved fashion. According to the city of Houston's website, to become a certified food manager one must take a two day course, pay $70 and pass an exam with a score of a score of at least 70 points.

Here are a couple of gems from the Food Service Manager's Certification manual (click to enlarge):

Potentially more onerous, however, is the certified kitchen requirement, which is apparently sufficiently burdensome that it has even prompted a business model based on avoiding the regulatory hassle. Although unable to determine the kitchen certification process after perusing the website, I  did notice the regulatory requirements for mobile food units, which are perhaps the next best thing. Now, in a system of limited government the process for setting up and operating such a business would look something like this:
  • Buy truck
  • Cook food
  • Drive around and sell food
  • Return home to roll around in piles of money and light cigars with $100 bills (kidding!)
  • Pay taxes
Suffice to say this is not the system that exists in Houston. Among the paperwork one must file:
Each one of these requirement serves as at least some small barrier to someone starting a business. At best it is just one more hoop that one must jump through, while at worst it could be enough to halt the business altogether (and remember, the fewer resources someone has, the more of an obstacle each regulation becomes). Something to consider next time you are exposed to a rant about the alleged evils of deregulation.

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