Barbecue – busted.
Mary Beth Conklin had organized Riverside High School’s annual homecoming tailgater to raise funds for the senior all-nighter – a tradition welcomed by the small community north of Spokane.
Several volunteers had food handler cards, hamburgers were tested for the right internal temperature, and everybody wore gloves. So Conklin was shocked when a Spokane County health inspector closed down the Sept. 30 event and slapped the group with a $175 fine for not having a permit.
“I think maybe I should be thrown in jail,” Conklin said, joking. “This is not the first time I’ve done this; apparently I’ve broken the law innumerable times. Every time I broke the law, I was selling food to support children, our school and our community.”
According to the Spokane Regional Health District, in order to sell burgers – considered a high-risk item in food-safety terms – the group needed to buy a “temporary food establishment” permit for $480, which is close to the amount the group hoped to raise.
In contrast, the food permit for operating a bed and breakfast establishment is $360 per year.
“It’s frustrating,” Conklin said. “I had no idea.”
Added Steve Bland, another parent and volunteer, “With the cost of the permit, there’s no way to continue the event. We now have one less opportunity to build community in our area, which is in desperate need of such functions.”
Kim Papich, a spokeswoman for the health department, said the inspector was simply doing her job, and “if a big group had gotten sick, then people would be asking: Why wasn’t the health department there?”
The cost of the temporary food establishment permit for high-risk food is basically the same, no matter the size of the event, until it reaches the level of the Spokane Interstate Fair or Hoopfest. There is no sliding scale for smaller events.
But health department officials were quick to point out the Riverside group and others have options to raise money. Items that don’t require a permit to sell include cotton candy, popcorn, corn on the cob, roasted nuts, dried herbs and “deep fried, commercially rendered pork skins prepared for immediate service,” according to information provided by health district.
In addition, a temporary food establishment permit for lower-risk food items is $140. Those items include espresso coffee drinks, commercially precooked food and nacho chips made with canned cheese sauce.
“There are a lot of options out there other than hamburgers,” said Ray Byrne, food program supervisor. He also noted that if the group had been making hamburgers and selling them out of the high school’s already approved kitchen or a permitted concession stand, they wouldn’t have needed an additional permit.
Conklin said she feels stung by the whole incident. She wrote to the health department afterward, “Your inspector crashed one of our major fundraisers for the year, and ruined our attempt to raise funds for a worthwhile event.”
She added, “I do not want to think my tax dollars are going to fund a salary for someone to sneak around in high school parking lots on football Friday nights, giving out tickets to people that volunteer their time to support our schools and students.”