Well, we made history yesterday. No, it wasn’t that we broke any tea serving records, or that we received national attention, but rather that we got a health permit – the first time in our nine years of serving free tea. To some this may not seem like a big deal, but to us it was. Read on to learn why!
DISCLAIMER: This blog post is full of truthful and honest reflections on recent experiences regarding our moral framework, stepping outside of our comfort zone, and being amazed with the outcome. A lot of the discussion lies in the realm of health laws, moral framework, and internal dialogue. This is a deeper-than-normal post, so read on only with that in mind.
About a month ago I saw a Facebook post by tea company, Tealet, about the first annual Texas Tea Festival to be hosted in Austin, Texas. With Austin already on our radar for one of mine and Edna’s next destinations, I wrote the festival to see if they wanted our services. They were cordial, but seemed too busy to offer any help to make it work for us to be there – and in fact threw one big roadblock in our way: by contacting the Austin Health Department about our project. This felt like an immediate break in trust and a lack of understanding for what the tea bus is about and honestly, it made me not want to work with the festival at all.
Among other things, what the tea bus does is cultivate genuine human interactions by taking the idea of profit-maximization out of the situation. To this end, often times what we do goes against social norms – and sometimes the law. Throughout modern history, a huge amount of social change has come through people who do not accept norms or laws. These are people that we admire, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Mahatma Gandhi to Woody Guthrie to Julia Butterfly Hill. When we look at history, we see that these people were in the right, despite the law or social norms of the time, and see that they helped us create a better world in their own ways. In our case, if a person can’t give freely and kindly to others, especially something as harmless as tea (think: water has been boiled by humans for thousands of years in order to sterilize it), it requires us to rethink our norms and our laws.
Legal (skip if you want):
Unlike many other states, the State of Texas has no exemption for private homes in their Food Establishment definition. This makes it so that you could actually be fined (or perhaps arrested) for preparing food in your own home for your own kids if you didn’t have a health permit (if someone wanted to enforce it this way). Upon speaking to Veronica at the Austin Health Department, she said there is a law that makes it okay for me to not have a permit if I had the contact info of everyone who came to the bus for tea. I likened this to the idea that you’re allowed to have friends over for food and not have a permit (still, under this supposed Austin law, you could get in trouble if a friend brought a friend to your house for a dinner and you didn’t have their contact info). Although she couldn’t quote me the law that said this, I accepted it, and thought, Hey, having to get people to jot down their name and contact info isn’t too big a price to pay for not having to get a health permit. But ten minutes later she called back and told me that her superior had said that since the Tea Festival wasn’t in a residentially zoned area, that I couldn’t do this. So, let me get this straight, my home is no longer a residence if parked in a non-residential neighborhood? At this point, I felt that I was being led on to believe things that aren’t actually law. I asked her to send me this law. Half an hour later, she sent me several laws regarding the fact that you can’t have a food establishment in a residence – which wasn’t really related to the law I was asking about, and I was curious if it was a threat to whether or not I could actually get a permit.
Other than the aforementioned philosophical reason for not wanting to get a health permit, I was also informed by Veronica at the Health Department, that I either had to use disposable tea cups, or gnarly chemicals to sanitize my ceramic tea cups. I always tell people that the only “catch” to the tea bus is that there are no to-go cups. This is both because genuine human interactions only happen if people stay to drink their tea, and because disposables don’t fit into my moral framework in the environmental realm. I also don’t use nasty chemicals in my bus (or life) as much as possible, because of my moral framework in regards to environment. Also, my grey-water tank is usually dumped onto living plants (lawns, gardens, trees, etc.), and the last thing I want to do is poison them. So, here I was faced with breaking my moral framework by either using disposables or by using harsh chemicals.
At this point, I had already crossed out of my comfort zone. I thought of things that I could do: not serve tea at the Texas Tea Festival, or have a Tea-Free Party in mild-protest, or actually get a health permit…
Amongst all this, Elyse Peterson, co-owner of Tealet, offered to pay the $98 for our health permit. Wow, what generosity! I accepted, and decided that I was willing to break my moral framework, both to give me the opportunity to serve tea at the Texas Tea Festival, but also to allow me the opportunity to either reaffirm or reshape my moral framework due to my experiences stepping outside of it.
After doing some research, I learned that I could use Iodine instead of bleach in my sanitize basin. I read that Iodine is naturally occurring in large quantities on earth, and you can set out left-over sanitizing water in the sun or heat it to evaporate the iodine out (don’t heat it indoors, because iodine vapor can be hazardous). Because 400 billion pounds evaporate off of the ocean every day, my 2 tsp didn’t seem like they would have a large environmental effect. I don’t know, however, if the form iodine comes in in sanitizers (Butoxy polypropoxy polyethoxy ethanol-iodine complex) is different in terms of environmental impact than the iodine that evaporates off of the ocean. I also figured I could dispose of it down a drain on the municipal sewer system. I knew for sure that I didn’t want to put it in my grey-water tank.
After rushing to Austin from West Texas and barely getting to the Health Department before their early 3:30pm Friday closing, I made it just in time to grab my Temporary Food Service Permit, which had to be posted somewhere in the bus. I found a nice frame in a free pile, and violá, it now was not only official, but it was beautiful too. That evening and the next day I had to find Iodine, figure out my three basins for dish-washing, do mad cleaning of the bus, and more in preparation for the festival.
The day of the Texas Tea Festival came, and I showed up early to get the one parking space that would allow me to open my side door up and set up a lounge out front – a half block down from the actual event. I spent the morning cleaning, sanitizing all my cups and accouterments, setting up, and swirling thoughts around my head about whether or not I should be upset or glad that I had been (practically) forced into getting a health permit and bending my moral framework.
The event had nearly sold out prior to the actual day of the event, so tons of folks came early to try and get in. With 700-ticketed folks, plus vendors and organizers, and all the extra people, there was a line halfway around the block, which just so happened to wrap around the tea bus. We got busy pretty quick even before the 11 am doors opened.
All day we were packed, with many folks spending hours with us. Out front, Elyse and the crew from Tealet were serving up some of their fine farmer direct teas. It was a pleasure to work with them, as they have mindfulness in their business that I can relate to. They work directly with farmers, both in the US and abroad to bring high quality tea to consumers with ultimate transparency in mind. In this way, farmers end up with higher profits, and consumers end up with lower prices. Choosing this transparency is extremely important in this day and age when people are so disconnected from the things they consume. It helps people understand the real value of the things, and just what it takes to produce them.
On a whim, I had posted a FREE TEA ad on the free section of Craig’s List the evening before the event. Surprisingly, several folks showed up because of this. These folks, combined with tea fest folks, combined with random passersby there in downtown Austin made for a great mix of people. I saw new friendships formed between a new gal to town and some other locals. I heard many people say that the tea bus brought a little sanity to the madhouse that was the tea festival. When all was said and done, between Tealet and the tea bus, I believe that we served about 250-300 cups of tea.
Just like many people who haven’t experienced the tea bus, I don’t think the organizers of the Texas Tea Festival really understood what the tea bus is all about and what we have to offer. This was apparent in the way they always seemed too busy to talk or problems-solve, or the fact that they didn’t promote our presence on their website nor Facebook. It wasn’t until after the festival that the organizers seemed to come around a little, first by giving us some bags of loose-leaf tea, and later by putting a couple photos on their Facebook page of the tea bus in action. I guess one of the only reasons why I like being well known is because I don’t have to prove myself and the teabus to people. Unfortunately, since I haven’t extended myself too much in the tea community (perhaps fearing snobbery – whether founded or not), and we are new to Austin, our reputation had not preceded us. I do however, fully understand the fact that people aren’t as enthralled by the free tea bus without experiencing it first.
After the event, there was a small after party at the venue. I sat around a table with great tea minds like Elyse and the Tealet folks, James Norwood Pratt, Jeffrey from Zhi Tea, and more. We discussed the power of tea, and I expressed that my favorite healing property of tea was that it cured loneliness. Tea isn’t always necessarily about the tea itself, but it’s ability to “turn strangers into friends,” as James said. He continued, and gave me one of the greatest compliments I could receive: he likened me to a modern-day Baisao. Baisao was a Zen monk who gave up on monastery life and lived in 1700s Tokyo, wandering around the streets, parks, and gardens offering people tea. He did not charge for the tea, and only had a small bamboo bucket that people could put money in if they wanted to. He became well know for his wisdom, often expressed through his calligraphy and poetry, and was sought out by people from all walks of life, and all classes for the simple moment of tea time. In fact, it was Baisao who, in his desire for a simple, less fancy tea, convinced farmers to make a very simple daily green tea that we now know of today as Sencha. He knew that it wasn’t necessarily about the tea or complex ceremony, but about the wisdom and the human interactions that it created.
Overall, my experiences stepping out of my comfort zone and moral framework definitely both helped me solidify my moral framework, and also helped me reshape a bit too. Below are reasons that I would and would not get a health permit again.
Reasons I WOULD NOT get a health permit again:
– They force me to compromise my moral framework (harsh chemicals or disposables)
– They exist only within the framework where people aim to maximize profit, and therefore have the cash flow to purchase.
– It creates separateness between the tea bus and people. Whereas normally I am just a person making friends and inviting them into my house for tea, with a health permit, I am an entity that is separate from the friends I make.
– It makes me deal with the worst end of beauracracy, takes a lot of time, and rushes me around, destroying my ability to live the way I want to live (simple, slow, and productive in things I actually care about).
– It forces me to get permission in order to be kind.
Reasons I WOULD get a health permit again:
– They allow me to participate in events that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
– They provide the opportunity for me to have amazing interactions with people that I might not otherwise get to.
– They keep my on the right side of (some) laws and therefor keep me out of trouble.
My feelings on the subject are that in 99% of cases I would not get a health permit again, but there are times and places where the outcome of getting one may lead to greater things. In our case, it has led to some great relationships with people, tea events, tea companies, and more. I can say with all honesty that if I could do it over, I would do it the exact same way. Thank you to the Texas Tea Festival for providing me the opportunity to test and try myself, and to Tealet for sponsoring our health permit, and to James Norwood Pratt for whispering some of the greatest compliments I could ever receive from a tea man into my ear.
A BIG shout out to: Elyse and Tealet for sponsoring our health permit and sharing tea with people in the free tea zone; to Veronica and the Austin Health Department for putting up with my hesitancies towards getting a health permit; to the Texas Tea Festival for allowing us to set up and for giving us the opportunity to strengthen our moral framework; to Harney & Sons for sharing an abundance of left-over teas, a cup/steep combo, and a tea pot; to all the others who shared tea, time, and enthusiasm with the tea bus; and of course, to Mountain Rose Herbs for sending us yet another massive box of tea to share with people.