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Grassroots effort by Spokane Tilth saves potlucks

A grassroots effort led by Chrys Ostrander, former program coordinator for Spokane Tilth, influenced the state’s new Food Code, adopted in September by the Washington State Board of Health.

“When it goes into effect in May 2005, it will allow anyone in Washington to host a community potluck and to advertise the potluck to the general public if desired,” Chrys said.

The code defines a potluck as a gathering to which people bring food to share without compensation, charge or commercial purpose.

“It surprised the Department of Health that so many people and organizations contacted it during the rule-making process to defend our right to commune over good ol’ home-cooked food whenever and wherever we want,” he said.

Offering some background, Chrys said that for more than 100 years, residents of the state have cooked meals at home and brought those meals to churches, grange halls, community centers, schools, businesses, charity organizations and other venues to dine with other members of their communities who also brought food to share.

In fact, this tradition has its roots deep in human history,” he said.  “Gathering around a table heaped with food that was brought from multiple homes to share and enjoy has been a form of human fellowship we have taken for granted for a long time.”

Washington State had no statewide rule governing whether potluck suppers should be regulated the same way that restaurants, grocery stores and other “food service establishments” are.  It was left up to the counties to interpret the Washington Food Code. Some counties require potlucks to be operated like restaurants, making it illegal for most foods served at potlucks to be cooked at home.

The new wording will permit organizations to hold potlucks without having to conform to costly licensing requirements or spoiling the fun by outlawing home-cooked foods,” he said. “The current wording does not single out publicly advertised potlucks for any greater scrutiny than any other type of potluck.”

Chrys describes the effort as a “struggle to decriminalize potluck suppers.”
“Previously a nonprofit organization, charity, political group, book club or church  was breaking the law in some localities if it advertised a potluck to the public without notifying the public health authority and complying with state and local food service establishment rules.

In 2002, a group of concerned people and organizations went to the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) to bring “some sanity to their attitude towards publicly advertised potluck suppers,” Chrys said.

After numerous heated, tedious meetings at which we reiterated over and over that our freedom to invite our communities to potluck suppers was something that should not be regulated, we thought we had emerged victorious,” he said. “On Feb. 5, 2003, the stakeholder group—including representatives from DOH, local health authorities, food industry representatives, farmers and just plain folks—reached consensus on language exempting potlucks from regulation.”

This consensus was re-confirmed at a DOH meeting on March 4, 2003.  However, a DOH “Core Group” removed the language that included “publicly advertised” potlucks in the exemption.

In the rest of 2003, the potluck advocates mounted a campaign with emails and web-based information, organized phone calls and attended DOH hearings around the state to assert: “Potlucks, whether advertised to the general public or not, should be exempt from Food Code regulation!”

“They heard us,” Chrys said.  “I was told that DOH received more comments on the potluck issue than any other aspect of the food code. As a result, DOH reinstated the wording that includes publicly advertised potlucks in the exemption. This is the wording that is in the newly adopted code.

Among the organizations backing the effort along with Spokane Tilth were People for Environmental Action and Children’s Health (PEACH), the Washington State Grange, Potlucks for Peace, the Ballard Alki Lodge #170 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and several churches.

“In October 2002, Spokane Tilth, a Chapter of Washington Tilth Association, was threatened with prosecution for announcing that we wanted to honor our local farmers by hosting a harvest celebration and community potluck supper that featured locally-grown foods that participants would prepare at home and bring to share at a community facility,” Chrys said.

“We felt this was an excessive intrusion by government regulators into a non-commercial activity that is really a private affair among neighbors,” he said.  “We received messages of outrage and encouragement to fight against this injustice from many individuals and groups around the state.”

Chrys lives at Tolstoy Farm near Davenport and is a grower of organic produce and botanicals.

For information, call 725-0610.

By Mary Stamp, Copyright © October 2004 - The Fig Tree