Lisa Abraham

One of Summa Health System’s premier charity events, Men Who Cook, has been canceled this year as the hospital figures out how to deal with health department regulations.

The event has men from throughout the community cooking up their favorite dishes as part of a competition, and those who pay to attend get to sample the foods.

State law requires that food sold to the public be prepared in a commercial kitchen, but most of the participants in the event prepare their foods at home.

Mike Bernstein, director of public relations for Summa, told the Beacon Journal, “We did not make the decision in response to any public health standards, which are always in place for an event such as this and which we take very seriously.”

However, a memo from one of the event planners at Summa tells a different story.

In an email to participants dated Jan. 16 obtained by the Beacon Journal, Jackie Trainor, manager of women’s health services administration for Akron City Hospital, stated: “Several of you have reached out to share some creative ideas and secret plans to ‘win’ Men Who Cook in 2014. We appreciate your enthusiasm and eagerness to support this unique fundraiser. Unfortunately, due to regulations and guidelines of the Ohio Department of Public Health regarding food events such as this, we are putting Men Who Cook on hiatus for 2014. We will explore the possibility of reworking the event to meet ODH standards and will keep you informed.”

Trainor referred all questions to Bernstein.

Tonia Burford, food safety supervisor for Summit County Public Health, said, “We have a mandate through Ohio law that food sold to consumers must be prepared at a commercial kitchen.” She said if participants were willing to cook their foods in commercial kitchens, the event could go on.

Burford said her department enforces the law as it becomes aware of violators.

But Men Who Cook had been going on for 13 years, and there are many similar events, most of which are highly publicized. How did they escape the health department’s attention for so long, particularly when it is common for city and county officials to attend or even take part?

“These events are a little bit slippery for us,” she said. Even though county and city officials may have participated, unless they are food inspectors they likely would not know the law, she said.

Burford said because Men Who Cook was held at the St. Joseph Family Center catering hall, her staff assumed the cooking was taking place in that kitchen. When they realized sometime after the 2012 event the food was being prepared in participants’ homes, they began working with Summa to make changes.

Burford said there are ways to get around the law by changing the ticket wording so that the money charged is for a charity auction, and the food is given away for free.

However, she said Summa may have legal concerns over the wording. “It’s their decision,” she said.

Bernstein stressed that Summa holds many fundraising events and wanted to take a break from Men Who Cook to assess past events and modify it if needed.

By all accounts, Men Who ‘Cook was a rousing success. Last year it netted $70,000, which in 2012 and 2013 was donated to Summa Screens, which provides mammograms to uninsured and ?under-insured women. Marlo Schmidt, coordinator of cancer outreach and education at Summa, said her program has provided more than 1,000 services and diagnosed 28 breast cancers as a result.

Lou-Ann Redmon, executive director for The GriefCare Place in Stow, said the news gives her concerns about her own agency’s annual event, Grapes and Gourmet Guys, which last year raised nearly $19,000 for the nonprofit that provides counseling services to the grieving.

The September event also involves men who cook their specialties, while attendees and judges vote for their favorites. Redmon said she didn’t want to go through all of the work to plan the September event, only to find out the health department would have issues.

“We’ve got to look at this now and decide what we’re going to do,” she said. “We’re such a small nonprofit. That’s a huge event for us.”

Brittany Schmoekel, community event coordinator for the city of Akron’s Recreation Bureau, is in charge of the Firefighters Chili Challenge for the Burn Unit at Akron Children’s Hospital. She said while the firefighters make their chili at their fire station kitchens, which are commercial, some police entrants cook at their Fraternal Order of Police hall, others use the kitchen at the city community center, and “some have cooked at home in the past.” She said the event would have to make sure that all of the teams use a commercial kitchen next year.

Redmon wondered, “There are so many of these events. Are they going to make everybody quit or just some of them?”

Burford said the health department does not want to be in the business of shutting down charity events. “But we have to make sure they are working within the confines of the law to make sure there is safe food handling,” she said.

John Nouse, a salesman for Engineering Dynamics who won the People’s Choice Award at last year’s Men Who Cook, said he understands the law is there to protect the public, but he believes the event is the victim of selective enforcement. Nouse said he cooked his entry at his home.

“It seemed to be getting bigger every year. I never heard of anyone who got sick. I’m disappointed. It’s a fun way to make a lot of money for a really good cause and it’s just a shame. It seems like government is becoming more involved in everything that we do,” Nouse said.

Burford said the law is clear and event planners need to be aware. “You need to be careful about how you are marketing your event. Food cooked in a home is not permitted under Ohio law. That’s just the way the law is written.”

Lisa Abraham can be reached at 330-996-3737 or at labraham@thebeaconjournal.com. Find me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter @akronfoodie or visit my blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/lisa.