Trumbull Memorial and St. Joseph hospitals have been partnered with Mobile Meals for 35 years.
WARREN -- Warren's two hospitals have asked the Ohio Department of Agriculture for continued exemption from state licensing as they continue preparing meals for delivery by Trumbull County Mobile Meals.
The state, however, would prefer that Forum Health Trumbull Memorial Hospital and St. Joseph Health Center obtain the licensing.
The two hospitals have partnered with Mobile Meals for 35 years in an effort that involves hundreds of meals and volunteers.
The hospitals are instead recommending a program of additional training for volunteers on food safety, food handling and equipment sanitization. Volunteers also would get training in menu and recipe ingredients, labeling and temperature maintenance, among other things.
One hour of training would be provided every two weeks until "all 600-plus volunteers have completed the required material" over 16 weeks, letters from the hospitals inform the state.
These letters are under review by the state's meat inspection division and legal divisions to see if exemptions are possible. A determination could come in July, state officials said Friday.
"We are not about wanting to cut off anyone's food supply at all," said Dr. Mike Hockman, chief of the ODA's meat inspection division.
"I am sure as I sit here today that the hospitals more than likely already have the principles in place. It [licensing] just sets up an orderly system where records are kept and maintained before the food is shipped out," he said. "It's just good business practice."
How the program works
The hospitals prepare the food for Mobile Meals during the course of daily patient meal-making and are reimbursed monthly by Mobile Meals for the cost of the food supplies only.
Meals are delivered weekdays as volunteers take turns driving 350 to 400 meals to more than 200 clients. Mobile Meals charges a nominal fee or uses a sliding scale based on ability to pay; the effort receives some income from charities and United Way of Trumbull County.
LeeAnne Mizer, agriculture spokeswoman, stressed that there have been no safety problems with the local food preparation and that the establishments are clean. "We just want to make sure that people are obtaining the safest food possible," she explained.
Tina Creighton, a spokeswoman for Humility of Mary health partners, which runs St. Joseph Health Center, said the hospital is working with the state for "a compromise where everyone's happy."
"The hospital itself is fully certified to provide food service. I mean, we cook hundreds of meals a day for our patients," Creighton said.
The state can grant a "catering exemption" if a meal is made, delivered and served by one entity that has total oversight. In the Trumbull County case, however, oversight of the meals changes to Mobile Meals once they leave the hospitals, explained Hockman and Dr. Steve Close, assistant meat inspection division chief.
Serving those in need
Mobile Meals, 280 High St. N.W., began in November 1970 to provide a hot, ready-to-eat midday meal for a fee to anyone in need. Emphasis is placed on the county's seniors who may not otherwise have a nutritious meal.
The state's position is that the hospitals in the arrangement are essentially a food distributor and, therefore, should be licensed and inspected accordingly.
Hockman and Close, who are doctors of veterinary medicine, said the federal government since the mid-1990s has backed a systematic approach for reviewing food preparation, from the receipt of foods to their final distribution, to prevent food-borne illnesses. The process is called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point.
The licensing would require that the hospitals follow HACCP. There are now 29 meal preparers in Ohio being licensed and inspected; licensing costs $50 for one year, and the federal government covers 50 percent of the program's cost, the doctors said. An inspector checks the paperwork and sanitation standards.
Cost should not be an issue, and operations can be licensed in a 90-day timeline as state inspectors help with plan implementation and oversight, the doctors said.