A weekly vegetarian potluck outside the Missoula County Courthouse has sparked a civil liberties flap between local health officials and a decentralized group of peace activists called Food Not Bombs.
The Missoula City-County Health Department confirms two inspectors approached Food Not Bombs during its weekly gathering Sunday evening and asked members to stop serving food. According to Environmental Health Supervisor Shannon Therriault, any organization that serves food to the public must have a service permit and pass a city-county review.
"We have a responsibility to enforce the state law and regulations in a fair and consistent manner," Therriault says. "That's what we intend to do, and ultimately it's to protect the public's health."
Food Not Bombs, which has been regularly sharing homemade meals since September, refused to comply with the inspectors' requests. Now health officials are planning their next course of action, which could involve local law enforcement.
"They've actually threatened police interference," says group member Reggie Herbert. "But we're going to continue regardless. We believe we are legally in the clear."
Herbert refers to the weekly Food Not Bombs event as an "open potluck," and says that many of the 20-some people who show up are steady group members. The group has seen a significant number of homeless or impoverished individuals come, but Herbert says they are in no way competing with or critical of established service providers like the Poverello Center.
"We believe that there is more than enough food for everyone in the world," Herbert says. "The only problem is someone else owns it."
In response to the health department's intervention, Herbert says Food Not Bombs has consulted local attorneys and contacted the Missoula chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He says the issue comes down to the group's right to peaceably assemble.
But Therriault is far more concerned with the potential public health risk posed by Food Not Bombs. Roughly 105 million people suffer from food-borne illness nationwide each year, she says. Her job is to prevent such cases from striking Missoula.
"I think the public really does have an expectation that when food is served to them it will be safe to eat," Therriault says. "Especially when it's provided in a public venue."
As for Herbert, he says if the cops do stop by this Sunday, they're welcome to a meal.