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Pa. lawmakers pass bill to legalize bake sales

HARRISBURG - Church ladies of Pennsylvania, prepare to start your mixers. It may soon be safe to go back in the kitchen.

HARRISBURG - Church ladies of Pennsylvania, prepare to start your mixers. It may soon be safe to go back in the kitchen.

Pie is no longer a "potentially hazardous substance" under a bill that passed the General Assembly and now awaits Gov. Rendell's signature.

It took a year of lard-laden lobbying by bakers who plied lawmakers with plates of cookies, but the General Assembly finally passed what has come to be known as "the pie bill" to restore the tradition of bake sales at churches, fire halls, and other civic spaces.

The kerfluffle began in early 2009 when a Department of Agriculture inspector noticed baked goods for sale at an annual Lenten fundraiser for St. Cecilia's Catholic Church in Rochester, northwest of Pittsburgh.

The inspector halted the bake sale and issued the cooks a warning for selling food items made in a non-state-inspected kitchen at a state-licensed facility.

"They couldn't sell pieces at fish fries like they'd been doing for 40 years," said Sen. Elder Vogel (R., Beaver) who counts St. Cecilia's parishioners among his constituents.

The newly elected lawmaker said he thought state inspectors should have more important things to worry about. He set to work amending the state law governing "public eating and drinking places."

"It was clear this would affect any organization that sold baked goods, soccer team or Little League," Vogel said.

Word of the illegal bake sale spread throughout the non-profit world - and across the country - putting a chill on fundraisers from Beaver County to Bristol Township.

Lent is to Christian churches what black Friday is to retailers. Lucrative fish fries and bake sales help keep church coffers filled.

"These fundraisers are our survival," said Father Mike Greb, pastor of St. Cecilia's, an institution in this old steel town, the birthplace of former NFL star running back Tony Dorsett and the childhood home of pop star Christina Aguillera. "In tough economic times, they keep the doors open and the lights on."

Greb said after the state busted the bake sale, his church got donations from local bakeries calls of support from as far away as California.

"People saw it as an interference in people's lives," he said. "It was so unnecessary."

Among those who showed up May 4 to lobby lawmakers were Harold and Ruth Steeley, retired dairy farmers from Tinicum Township in Bucks County. They were among the members of the Pennsylvania Grange, formed in 1867 to help farmers restore their land after the Civil War.

Ruth Steeley said she and her husband have long been active in the Plumstead Grange - which has its own Twitter account - and she brought her coconut oatmeal cookies to Harrisburg to win support of local lawmakers (the bill passed unanimously in the House that day).

"I think that when you have small communities, bake sales are great way to help with funds," she said.

The bill, which allows nonprofits to sell homemade food items that do not require refrigeration, won final Senate passage Wednesday. The vote was again unanimous.

Doug Kilgore, deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for inspecting 22,000 restaurants and other food service operations, says his agency supported the bill with a few modifications, such as notifying consumers that the baked goods are made at someone's home.

Rendell, who often eagerly announces his intention to sign bills, is noncommittal on the pie bill. His spokesman says state lawyers need to study it.

"The governor supports the concept behind the bill," said Gary Tuma. "Until that review is complete, there will not be a firm decision on if or when he will sign it.

No matter. Father Greb is confident the ladies of St. Cecilia's will be back in the baking business next spring.

"Bake sales really build community," he said. "And, you know, everybody likes pie."