Keeping Parish Food Events Safe and Healthy!

Building a parish community often involves parish suppers, festivals, or donuts and coffee after Mass. Whenever the parish serves food in any form it is important to assure that all health regulations are observed for the safety of participants. This may seem daunting but it can be simplified when a positive relationship is developed between the parish and the local municipal health department. The State of New Jersey creates the essential regulations for food service* but it is the local town health department that implements, explains and supports organizations in the observance of these regulations.  Non-profit status exempts churches from fees involved in licensing events.  However, this status does not exempt parishes from the legal or moral obligations to follow safety precautions.

Step One: Make an appointment to meet with local health department personnel. Discuss what is expected of community organizations. Share calendar events that might involve food service.   Invite township inspectors to come to the parish center and see what facilities exist. In some townships, an annual inspection will be established.

Doing this outside of calendared events assures that any work that must be done will not impede important parish events.In most cases, the rectory is a residential site and does not need to be inspected. This will only vary if the rectory kitchen is used to prepare meals to be shared at parish functions.

Step Two: Establish a protocol of meeting with township officials when planning any specific event that involves serving food.  In some municipalities, a gathering permit is required for events that go beyond the usual functions of the parish. This allows health officials to walk through regulations months in advance of the spaghetti dinner or carnival.  It can also facilitate security precautions or traffic regulation for large events.  In any case, make consultation with local health officials a regular step in planning a special parish event.

Please note that even bake sales and donuts after Mass should be vetted by local health officials.  These are now considered “Cottage Food Operations” by the State of New Jersey.  Free or for purchase items must be responsibly procured and presented for the safety of all. 

When possible, pastors are encouraged to appoint an employee to supervise the maintenance of all kitchen facilities that are used for parish functions.  This supervisor can be charged with building a positive relationship with local health officials.   He or she can provide oversight for the following important practices:

  • Regular testing of equipment including but not limited to refrigerators, ovens, exhaust systems, sinks, water sources, waste management and cleaning protocols to assure that are all properly functioning;
  • Review of all food sources to assure that food is delivered and kept at required temperatures in order to protect from contamination;
  • The posting of effective handwashing protocols for all employees and volunteers who use the kitchen facility and or serve food within the parish; also the posting of choking response posters when meals will be served in parish halls;
  • Establishing food labeling protocols that protect purchasers or guests who have gluten, dairy, nut or other common food allergies;
  • Educating parish volunteers on all health practices and regulations.

When local health department members know that the pastor and parish staff want to do the right thing by keeping facilities in code and by working within municipal regulations, they often become an invaluable resource. Taking steps in advance to obey state laws and local statutes eases the planning of important community building opportunities.  Responsible compliance may also help a parish avoid civil litigations. Most importantly, the serious observance of health precautions will protect all members of the parish family.