Delco woman’s feeding program hits red tape

Khaseem Vincent, 3, drinks juice given to him by Angela Prattis (not pictured), as part of her initiative. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Khaseem Vincent, 3, drinks juice given to him by Angela Prattis (not pictured), as part of her initiative. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 15, 2012

A Delaware County woman who voluntarily distributes free food to children from her driveway has run afoul of officials in Chester Township who say her efforts violate zoning ordinances.

If Angela Prattis, 41, a married mother of three and the youth director of her church, does not come up with $1,000 to pay for a zoning hearing within the next year, she'll be barred from feeding young people next summer, officials have said.

"It's unbelievable," said Prattis, a trained volunteer with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's Nutritional Development Services, which supplies lunch and snacks five days a week. The food is paid for by the state, whose representatives have inspected and approved Prattis' operation, according to an archdiocesan official.

This summer, Prattis has been feeding 60 children from the area in front of the two-story brick house that she and her husband own.

"It's not like I'm selling the food," added Prattis, a massage therapist and stay-at-home mother who also has a foster child and runs a neighborhood basketball program.

Prattis said that initially, township officials told her they would fine her $600 a day this summer unless she stopped distributing lunches and snacks to needy children. But newspapers and TV stations heard about it, and the township withdrew the fines, Prattis said Tuesday.

Township Councilman William Kennard, who Prattis said was a vocal opponent of her effort, did not return phone calls for comment.

Township Manager William Piserik said Tuesday that the township had not fined Prattis and would allow her to continue distributing food until her program's scheduled end Aug. 24.

"No one is condemning her for feeding children that need the lunch program," Piserik said. "But we advised her she's violating an ordinance and was told she'd have to apply for a variance, which costs $1,000 to pay for the zoning hearing.

"I'm assuming she'll sit down and discuss it with the Township Council and the solicitor. Nobody's against the program, but folks don't want the program set up in the lady's front driveway."

Piserik said "we got a complaint" about the program, but would not elaborate.

For three years, Prattis ran the program out of a church. But this year she had a new baby, and thought it would be easier to distribute from her home, which she began to do July 16.

It's a common practice to distribute food from private homes on blocks in low-income areas throughout the region. In Philadelphia, for example, representatives from the archdiocese or the city Department of Recreation will deliver food to a trained and vetted person on a block to distribute lunch in the summer months. This is the hungriest season in the area, because schools are closed and can't offer breakfast and lunch to low-income children.

Prattis is very much aware of the practice. "I grew up in poverty, with the archdiocese program feeding me when I lived with my family in North Philadelphia," she said. "It's a great program, and I'm a product of it."

Anne Ayella, who runs the archdiocesan program, said Tuesday that there were 450 people like Prattis in the area who distribute archdiocese-supplied food from their homes or from churches and other organizations during the summer.

Ayella added that in 32 years of working with the program, she has "never had anything like this happen."

Initial publicity about the Chester Township program and the town's response riled people in Prattis' neighborhood of Toby Farms, as well as many others in cyberspace.

"I felt such outrage when I first heard this story," said Lisa McAllister, a tax accountant in Conshohocken. "It's just so upsetting. So now, children should go hungry because she didn't follow proper protocol? Don't make her pay. Just help her follow the protocol."

McAllister said that she had started a Facebook page about the situation, and that friends and associates were contemplating various possible solutions, including collecting money.

As they picked up her garbage Tuesday, Prattis' sanitation collectors offered a donation to defray the zoning board cost.

The Rev. Keith Collins, Prattis' pastor at the Church of the Overcomer in Trainer, said his congregation was roiled by the food contretemps.

"Everybody knows that summer rolls around each year in an underserved community where kids need to eat," Collins said, adding that no one in the township stepped up to help except Prattis. "Angela has taken action. She's an extraordinary young lady who is always involved in making the community better.

"And the township is using a thermonuclear weapon to kill a ladybug."

Both Collins and Prattis say the situation is driven by politics: She's a Democrat, while much of the township power structure is Republican, they said.

"Anyone not eating from the Republican trough is ostracized," Collins said.

No one from the township was available to respond.

In Prattis' driveway Tuesday, several children sat at tables under a brown, screened-in tent that Prattis had set up, eating animal crackers that were part of the archdiocese's snack.

"I plan on doing this again next year," Prattis said, unsure of how the zoning conflict will be resolved.

And she added one more thought about how she would continue to feed children in the area: "After all this, I plan to run for a Township Council seat. Then we'll see."


Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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