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Church, City at Odds Over ‘Prayer and Produce’ Food Stand

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Cheryl Glassford, Bay News 9, Reporting, Courtesy CNN

LAKELAND, Florida — A produce stand that trades food for donations is causing some controversy in Polk County.

Jonathan Friedt, who is the associate pastor of Believers Fellowship Work of Faith Church in Lakeland, said he has been told by the city that the stand will have to be shut down because it is violating regulations.

“It has really opened the door for us to share the gospel with a lot of people,” he said.

The church doesn’t require that people donate money in exchange for food. Sandra Sebastiano said she has been able to take advantage of the church’s produce stand even when she doesn’t have any money.

“There are many times when I don’t have anything at all that I can contribute, and so I’m able to come and get the things without any donation at times,” she said.

The donations may have to stop, though, as the city wants to shut the stand down. City spokesman Kevin Cook said the stand violates zoning codes.

“The basic issue is the tent is larger than what is allowed per residential use,” he said. “And the signage and the way the produce stand is operating is commercial use, in an area zoned for residential.”

Friedt disagrees, saying the only money the stand brings in is from donations.

“We feel like it is an encroachment of the city’s power to come and dictate to the church what ministry is and what ministry is not,” he said.

The church has been trying to drum up support from the community by handing out flyers and advertising their plight on a sign in front of the church.

The sign has gotten the attention of passing drivers like Maria Willard.

“You know, I can understand both sides of the story, but I really think that this isn’t big enough to do much of anything to anybody else’s business,” she said.

City officials said the rules are in place for a reason, and that the church needs to move the stand off the side of the road and inside the building.

The pastor said he’s not going anywhere just yet.

The church and code enforcement officials will present both of their sides to the city on May 11 during a public meeting. After that, a decision will be made as to whether the stand can stay where it is or if it will have to be shut down.