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Soup Kitchen spurns USDA food to retain prayer

USDA food provided 43 percent of 2012 aid total here.

The operator of the Springfield Soup Kitchen said he will sign up to be a Second Harvest Food Bank affiliate after being assured the food he receives will not restrict the timing of prayer at the kitchen’s twice-a-week meals.

“I have to have meat, that’s my priority for these homeless people,” said Fred Stegner, whose Springfield Soup Kitchen serves free meals at 5 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays at 830 W. Main St.

Stegner had hesitated to apply for food from Second Harvest because of restrictions on prayer that accompany use of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) food that is part of the food bank’s supply.

Stegner was assured he could use food from non USDA sources.

“We’ve got to try to get food,” Stegner said. “But we will not give up our freedom.”

Keith Williamson, who manages the food bank, said that, to his knowledge, none of the soup kitchens operated by Second Harvest’s affiliates use USDA food, which typically arrives in smaller serving sizes than are practical for soup kitchen use.

He also said that 22 of the 72 agencies that work with the local food bank are non-USDA users that, when ordering their food, simply avoid the USDA items identified on the menu.

Stegner said he is going to exercise that option.

Williamson said USDA food plays a crucial part in the food bank’s ability to feed the growing number of hungry people.

The 1.9 million pounds of food the USDA provided last year represents about 43 percent of the food Second Harvest gave out last year, he said. That includes the food distributed in 40-pound boxes delivered monthly to about 1,200 lower-income senior citizens.

Because the USDA food is from a public source, federal civil rights law says those serving the food “cannot require or coerce clients to attend a religious service, participate in prayer, join a counseling group, attend budgeting, parenting or job training classes or do odd jobs.”

At a May 23 meeting at Second Harvest, 701 E. Columbia St., Stegner asked why a Catholic organization would accept food from the USDA if it came with restrictions on prayer, contending, “It’s in direct opposition to your (religious) mission.”

Ted Bergh, CEO of Cincinnati-based Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio, which operates Second Harvest, said there is no conflict between Catholic thinking on serving the poor and the USDA regulations.

“Catholics don’t proselytize. They don’t make people pray to eat,” Bergh said.

Knowing the hungry include many denominations and atheists, “We don’t beat people over the head with the Bible to eat,” he said. “That’s wrong.”

Springfielder Colleen Walters, president of Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio, agreed: “We do it because we’re Catholic, not to make them Catholic. I don’t think you should make people who are vulnerable pray.”

If that message was clear, those representing the local Catholic community were divided on whether USDA regulations restrict prayer from being offered until food is served or after the meal is finished.

While some said grace could be said before the meal, Bergh called it a “gray area” and Williamson said his firm belief that any offering of prayer before meal’s end might make any agency that uses USDA commodities vulnerable to a complaint before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

Stegner said he would avoid USDA regulations at the Springfield Soup Kitchen because “there are many that ask for prayer” and “many participating ministers oblige at the table side.”

But after the meeting he also said, “We’re looking forward to being on board with Second Harvest.”

The Springfield Soup Kitchen officially will become an affiliate when it makes minor improvements to meet the food handling standards of ServSafe.

In related news, Second Harvest also has learned that it will get nearly $77,000 as its share of $1 million Gov. John Kasich released by executive order last week to 13 food banks around Ohio.

In addition to buying food, said Williamson, “we can actually buy some personal care items, too.”

That includes toothpaste, soap and other hygiene items food bank clients usually need.

The timing of the release, Williamson said, will allow Second Harvest to “get an abundance for the summer, which is going to be great.”

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