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Church bake sales to rise again after passage of Pa. 'pie bill'

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 would no longer be a "potentially hazardous substance" under a bill that 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 kerfuffle began in early 2009 when a state Department of Agriculture inspector noticed baked goods for sale at an annual Lenten fund-raiser 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 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.

He said state inspectors should have more important things to worry about and 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," Vogel said.

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

"All the pie bakers of Pennsylvania were up in arms," said Josephine Reed, 70, a member of St. Cecilia's. Her most recent specialty is "adopted" raisin pie, using the recipe of a parishioner too ill to bake. "We had to go to the supermarket and doctor pies with Cool Whip which got us through that year."

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

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

After the state busted the bake sale, Greb said, his church got donations from local bakeries and 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 had long been active in the Plumstead Grange - which has its own Twitter account - and she took her coconut oatmeal cookies to Harrisburg to win support of local lawmakers. (The House passed the bill without opposition that day.)

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

The bill, which would allow nonprofits to sell homemade food that does not require refrigeration, won final Senate passage Wednesday, again unopposed.

The state Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for inspecting 22,000 restaurants and other food-service operations, supports the bill with a few modifications, such as notifying consumers that the baked goods are made at someone's home, Deputy Secretary Doug Kilgore said.

Rendell, who often eagerly announces his intention to sign bills, was noncommittal on the pie bill. His spokesman said state lawyers needed to study it.

No matter. 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."