As it takes closer aim at “red tape” in new legislation to be introduced Monday, the Ontario government is looking to ease the burden on food rescue programs, soup kitchens and school nutrition programs now facing some of the same regulations as restaurants chains, the Star has learned.
The goal is to create more “tailored” requirements that ensure food safety but relieve strain on largely volunteer organizations, said Prabmeet Sarkaria, associate minister of small business and red tape under Premier Doug Ford.
“Currently, Ontario doesn’t distinguish between full-service chain restaurants and the various not-for-profit soup kitchens, before- and after-school programs and new and innovative food rescue and delivery organizations,” he added.
“As a result, these charitable organizations are left with a confusing and convoluted set of rules through which to navigate. They’re forced to spend needless hours trying to understand what applies to them and what doesn’t so they can continue to their good work in our communities.”
The chief executive of food rescue organization Second Harvest — which picks up food from various sources and delivers it to community agencies feeding needy clients — applauds the move and is looking forward to consultations in which groups will advise the Progressive Conservative government where specific changes are most needed.
“Food safety is critical, but not to make the regulations so impossible you can’t meet them,” said Lori Nikkel.
She cites the example of requirements for a handwashing sink in the same room as food is prepared with a dedicated sink, even if there’s another sink just around the corner in which staff and volunteers can scrub their hands.
“That makes no sense. There’s already a sink.”
Nikkel said provincial regulations also need to be “harmonized” from one municipality to another “so we’re all singing off the same sheet.”
“It’s critically important that community food organizations are inspected but with the lens that these are community programs, we’re not selling the food. Community programs are often just giving out the food.”
Another difference between restaurants, food banks and soup kitchens is that the latter are not selling food and often find the cost of certifying volunteers through food safety training programs can be prohibitively expensive on tight budgets at about $100 per person, Nikkel added.
“How do we loosen these regulations up so that the expectation for safety training for a chain is different from a volunteer-driven organization?”
Sarkaria will introduce the “Better for People, Smarter for Business Act” on Monday as the legislature returns from an extended five-month break.
He said community food organizations and programs should be able to “focus on feeding those in need rather than spending their time and money complying with the full range of regulatory requirements that apply to other food premises.”
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The government has targeted a reduction in costs to business of $400 million by next June from reducing regulations in hopes of making Ontario more competitive.
Previous measures have included freezing Workplace Safety and Insurance Board rates for not-for-profit agencies such as soup kitchens and some daycare centres, and allowing pharmacists to treat minor ailments and renew some prescriptions for up to a year.