December 1, 2020

Food Not Bombs: What to Know About the Free Meal Collective

From Teen Vogue, by Elizabeth King

It’s the organization’s 40th anniversary!

The organization has been called a “food terrorist” group. Its members have been arrested and harassed by the police. Their activities? Regularly distributing free vegetarian and vegan meals to local communities around the United States.

Food Not Bombs, an organization marking its 40th anniversary in the spring of 2020, has been a source of free meals around the country and the world. The group was kicked off on the East Coast in 1980 by local activists who wanted to protest capitalism and its investment in the nuclear industry. The organization has since grown beyond the founders’ wildest dreams.

Food Not Bombs eschews a hierarchical organization structure in favor of a horizontal, autonomous model, where anyone can create their own local chapter and operate in a way that best serves the needs of their community. There are no formal titles within Food Not Bombs; everyone is simply a member. Many chapters provide meals on a weekly basis, though some chapters serve more or less frequently. Local chapters secure food donations from community members and businesses, and prepare the meals themselves, either in their own homes or in donated kitchen space.

Food Not Bombs cofounder Keith McHenry tells Teen Vogue that in his early 20s, he was inspired by his history professor, A People’s History of the United States author Howard Zinn, to get involved with protests against New Hampshire’s Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant. After an associate was arrested during an anti-Seabrook protest in May 1980, McHenry and friends put on a bake sale to raise money for his legal defense, planting the seeds for what would become Food Not Bombs.

But the organization truly took root in Boston, where the group protested against newly elected president Ronald Reagan’s policies of slashing of social services in favor of increasing the military budget.

In March 1981, the members of Food Not Bombs hatched a plan to stage a piece of political street theater in Boston, recruiting other activists to dress as hoboes and stand in line outside a shareholders meeting of the Bank of Boston, as if waiting outside a soup kitchen. McHenry said this meeting was targeted because the group says some members of the bank’s board were also on the boards of weapons manufacturing companies.

But Food Not Bombs decided they could both make a statement and actually feed people in need during the protest. So the activists prepared a meal, and McHenry visited a local soup kitchen the night before the demonstration, where he gave a speech and invited people to join the protest and be fed. This protest was an early iteration of the kind of mutual aid the group would go on to provide.

During this time, McHenry was working in the produce section at a grocery co-op, where, to his dismay, he often had to throw away perfectly good organic fruits and vegetables. He instead started bringing the fresh goods to residents of a nearby housing project. Not far away from the project, McHenry soon learned, was a laboratory where scientists were designing nuclear guiding systems for Reagan’s “Star Wars” program. A deep-seated opposition to the U.S. nuclear program being expanded in their own backyard helped the organization came up with the name Food Not Bombs, McHenry tells Teen Vogue. The name reflects the group’s work to resist the military industrial complex by providing mutual aid in the form of free meals.

What began as a bake sale and a small protest in Boston grew into a multi-chapter organization after McHenry traveled to San Francisco to start a chapter there in 1988. Food Not Bombs volunteers served free meals at Golden Gate Park, where a lot of homeless people and other community members often hung out.

“That’s when we started getting arrested for sharing food,” McHenry says. This chapter famously faced sustained police repression; members serving food in the park were arrested, some were beat up, and saw their meals destroyed by police. The organization did not at that time have a permit to serve meals in public. McHenry tells Teen Vogue that in total, he has been arrested nearly 100 times for work pertaining to Food Not Bombs.

It was around that time that the Food Not Bombs logo — a raised purple fist holding a carrot — was created. McHenry, who designed the logo, tells Teen Vogue that he used his brother’s hand as the model for the logo, which is now seen on Food Not Bombs posters, banners, and literature.

Around the time of the mass arrests of members at Golden Gate Park, McHenry created a pamphlet explaining how anyone could start their own Food Not Bombs chapter.

Currently, there are chapters all around the U.S., including in San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, New York City, and Wilmington, Delaware. International chapters of Food Not Bombs can be found all over as well, including in London and Tokyo.

Dana, who cofounded the Food Not Bombs branch in Wilmington, Delaware, after meeting like-minded activists during a march against the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, says her chapter serves food every other Saturday outside a local homeless shelter. Like many Food Not Bombs groups, the Wilmington chapter provides services in addition to meals. Dana says that in Wilmington, the group gets donations of Narcan — which is used to treat opiate overdoses — and plans to conduct trainings on how to use the medicine. “A lot of people we work with have struggled with addiction,” Dana says.

The current Food Not Bombs chapter in Detroit has also been active for about four years, according to remarks provided to Teen Vogue by one of the branch’s cofounders, Diara, and other members of the chapter. Since the election of Donald Trump, the chapter has created a sibling organization to resist the presence of the so-called alt-right called Food Not Class. Collaborating with another local organization, the Rosa Parks Transit Center, Food Not Bombs and Food Not Class Detroit provide food, clothing and blankets, and other necessities to working class and homeless people.

The Food Not Bombs chapter in New Orleans has recently been revived after several years of dormancy. Kathryn Myers, who now lives in New Orleans, started the branch up again at the tail end of 2019 and hit the ground running, securing food donations for meal service and making plans to offer free showers and haircuts for homeless people in the city.

There is also still a strong Food Not Bombs presence in San Francisco. Eddie Stiel, a member of the San Francisco chapter and a longtime housing activist says that these days they face less harassment from police (though a blog post from the group says that officers arrested several members and destroyed the group’s meal on May Day in 2014). Stiel says that the best part of Food Not Bombs San Francisco is that the group serves food to the community every week, and that “we’ve been able to keep it going for all these years.”

Keeping these chapters going is no small feat given the state repression Food Not Bombs has endured.

Beyond arrests and disruption by local police at various chapters throughout the years, FBI officials had reportedly placed Food Not Bombs on a list of groups whose members may be intent on committing acts of terrorism, and multiple chapters say they have been spied on, raided, and otherwise monitored by local and federal law enforcement agencies. The organization claims the FBI investigated Colorado Food Not Bombs members in 2004 due to their association with the Anarchist Black Cross, a decades-old organization that provides support to incarcerated people. And ahead of the 2008 Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota, the FBI and local police reportedly raided a house where members of Food Not Bombs lived, arresting one member on charges of conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism and confiscating a bag of onions, according to eyewitnesses.

These disruptions have not deterred Food Not Bombs from its work: providing free meals in local communities on a regular basis, offering sustenance at left-wing protests, and even administering disaster relief.

Food Not Bombs was present during the Occupy movement that began in New York City’s Zuccotti Park in September 2011. McHenry says he traveled to Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., during the Occupy movement, working with Food Not Bombs to provide meals to occupiers and anyone else who needed a meal.

Food Not Bombs chapters have also been providing critical mutual aid in the form of free meals during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Dana says that most members of the Delaware chapter are currently out of work, but have “been trying to increase our output since there are so many people who are struggling to get food right now, and some of the organizations who usually do that work are not able to right now.” The Wilmington chapter that Dana cofounded has been trying to get two meals out per week, instead of one.

Myers says that the new Food Not Bombs chapter in New Orleans now has about five members, who are partnering with the Community Kitchen Collective to cook meals in their homes, package the meals, and deliver them individually to homeless people.

While the current iteration of Food Not Bombs New Orleans chapter is still new new, both McHenry and Myers tell Teen Vogue that an earlier chapter there was very active in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the immediate aftermath of the storm — which, in combination with a botched response by the George W. Bush administration, claimed more than 1,000 lives — Food Not Bombs wrote at the time that it was one of the only groups providing regular hot meals to locals affected by the hurricane.

McHenry tells Teen Vogue that he never imagined the organization would have dozens of chapters not only throughout the U.S. but also around the globe. “Even now it’s hard for me to imagine that Food Not Bombs is all over the world. It freaks me out,” McHenry says with a chuckle. “Almost every week I learn about a new Food Not Bombs chapter.”

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