JOSHUA TREE — After 33 years of providing food for the hungry, the Way Station has run into a chain of roadblocks in the form of state regulations.
The Christian ministry provides breakfasts, lunches and boxes of food supplies along with Bible study and baptisms daily. But the county’s environmental health department says they are in violation of several state laws on food safety.
Pastors Steve and Duffy Cook and their staff and volunteers work out of a facility on Commercial Street in Joshua Tree, and report providing food to between 50 and 80 people daily.
San Bernardino County spokesman David Wert said the Way Station isn’t meeting state standards with its septic system and walk-in freezer, among other problems.
“It’s not the county’s desire to put anyone out of business, but by the same token, the county cannot look the other way if there are food safety issues because they are doing good work,” Wert said.
“Good intentions won’t keep people from getting sick if food isn’t being stored or served properly.”
Steve Cook said this week that he doesn’t know of anyone who has had a problem with the Way Station food.
“We’ve been in this building since 2001 and we’ve never had any problems or complaints that I’ve been aware of,” Cook said.
Cook has been trying to work with county regulators for about a year. He said he paid around $5,000 to have plans drawn up showing the property modifications he would make to comply with government health and safety standards. He also paid a $1,200 fee to the county to submit those plans — but they were rejected.
Now he’s working with the county on changing the plans, and worrying about how he can complete the modification if the county accepts his proposal.
“We’re trying to fulfill our obligation but it’s becoming problematic for us to do some of the things they’re asking us to do. We’re talking at least $100,000.”
He says he has a long list of things the county is requiring.
For example: “They’re requiring us to have a grease trap. Well, we don’t cook with grease,” he said.
After a meeting with county staff Thursday, however, Cook could see a glimmer of hope.
“The first thing they said was, ‘We want you to know we don’t want to close the Way Station down. We want to work with you,’” Cook said.
Top on the county’s list is a new septic system.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, but at least it gives us a little bit of breathing room.”
Cook said he was surprised by the show of support the Way Station got from the people of the Morongo Basin.
“Apparently there was such a response from the community. I was overwhelmed by this,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for a long time, and you forget that you impact so many people.”
The problems don’t stop at the building, however.
Under state law, any commercial diesel trucks more than 10 years old to get upgraded motors or get off the road. The intent is to reduce dangerous emissions. California says diesel exhaust causes 70 percent of the cancer risk from airborne toxins.
The Way Station’s two diesel trucks, dating from 1995 and 1991, don’t meet the new regulations.
That means after December, the ministry will have to pay for motor upgrades or new trucks.
“We really need a truck to haul the food. Last year I think we hauled over 240,000 pounds of food,” Cook said.