Every Tuesday night for the last 10 years Joan Cheever has come to Maverick Park, in downtown San Antonio to feed the homeless. But this past Tuesday something new happened. The police showed up.
Cheever: He says we have to have a permit. We have a permit. We are a licensed non-profit food truck.
Officer Mike Marrota: Licensed by who?
Cheever: City of San Antonio.
Cheever is a certified chef and licensed food handler. She also runs a non-profit called “The Chow Train.”
Officer Marrota: So do you have the permit?
Officer Marrota: I’d like to see it.
Cheever: OK, that’s good.
Officer Marrota: Thank you dear.
Cheever: You’re welcome, you’re welcome.
The documents are produced but there’s a problem. They are expired. But Cheever argues to Officer Marrota that the food truck, where the meals were prepared elsewhere, is in compliance with city health codes and properly permitted. And that food was transported to the park in commercial catering equipment, kept at proper temperatures and using standard food safety practices.
Cheever: This comes up and I tell you guys and the mayor I have a legal right to do this.
Officer Marrota: Legal right based on what?
Cheever is claiming RFRA – Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That’s federal and state law that protects the free exercise of religion. Marrota shakes his head. He isn’t buying it.
Officer Marrota: Do you have your driver’s license with you?
Cheever: Sure do.
Officer Marrota: Can I see it please?
Cheever: Okay, why?
Officer Marrota: I’m going to issue you a citation.
The five-foot tall Cheever isn’t backing down and looks incredulous as Marotta starts writing the ticket.
Officer Marrota: So you can take it to court and tell the judge exactly what you are telling me.
Cheever: So what’s the citation for?
Officer Marrota: For serving – people – without a permit. You are not allowed to serve. That is the city of San Antonio.
Cheever: So any Good Samaritan that offers food for people that are in need or are homeless...
Officer Marrota: That’s great. You are a Good Samaritan...
Cheever: No, but…
SAPD Officer Marrota: It’s very nice that you are doing that. However…
Cheever: Do Good Samaritans get tickets in San Antonio?
Officer Marrota: Yes.
Joan Cheever: Really?
And even as the ticket is being written the serving of the food continues.
Officer Marrota: You can serve them. That’s fine.
Cheever: Thank you.
Officer Marrota: You have them in line. I’m not going to not allow you.
Cheever: Thank you.
Officer Marrota: Go ahead. Let them eat.
This was the fourth serving stop for the Chow Train that night. At each stop the men and women in need like Gary wait for her.
“We love Tuesday nights because we know we are going to get something good to eat,” he said.
The menu for the night is restaurant quality, including farm fresh vegetable soup, lamb meatballs over whole wheat pasta, southern brazed greens and farmer’s green salad with roasted beets.
“It’s a three course meal. And sometimes I tell them, they go, 'Ok chef, what’s the price.' I go, 'Anybody else 15-20 dollars – for you – for free.'”
Cheever has also taken the Chow Train to areas around the country hit by natural disasters, like when deadly tornados hit Joplin, Missouri and Moore Oklahoma and when wild fires consumed Bastrop Texas. Cheever’s Good Samaritan culinary efforts caught the eye of cooking guru Rachael Ray and was invited on her television show last November.
Rachael Ray: “To help you out with God’s work there, your grocery store HEB, they’re lovely people, they’re giving you $5,000.”
But Cheever’s next audience may not be so uplifting. She’s due in court on June 23rd and she says she’s going to fight the citation. Meanwhile Cheever says she’s not stopping. On Tuesday, you can find her again at Maverick Park feeding the homeless, and according to police--breaking the law.