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Food, Not Bombs--Serving Free Meals in a Radical Way

It was during Hurricane Katrina that Keith McHenry saw just how far Food Not Bombs - the decentralized, all-volunteer activist network he co-founded - had pervaded public consciousness.

"The day the hurricane hit, there was an African American man on CNN standing in front of the Superdome," McHenry remembers. "[He was] saying 'This is crazy - the Red Cross isn't doing anything, FEMA's not doing anything - what we need is food, not bombs.'"

"It wasn't clear whether he was slighting the fact that all this money was going to the war in Iraq, or if he knew about FNB. But so many people heard that on TV that the Food Not Bombs hotline started ringing off the hook."

As the calls rolled in, McHenry, no stranger to feeding the homeless, was already on his way to New Orleans. He'd just finished serving food at Camp Casey, the peace vigil that Cindy Sheehan had established outside the Bush family compound at Crawford, Texas.

The story is typical of Food Not Bombs (FNB), a long-unacknowledged force behind the US peace and justice movement. But along with an impressive record of public service, Food Not Bombs carries with it a profound history of social unrest. The group is on the FBI's domestic terrorist watch list, and McHenry himself, a man with the quiet presence and humble demeanor of an old-time peacenik, has been dubbed "One of America's 100 Most Dangerous People" by the US State Department.

When asked why Food Not Bombs attracts such hostility, McHenry says, "Partly it's the free food. And partly it's the 'not bombs.'"

Setting up on street corners and in front of City Halls and fast food chains from Los Angeles to Latvia, Food Not Bombs serves almost exclusively vegan food (no meat, dairy or other animal products), and attempts to ensure that most of its food is organic. McHenry explains: "For one, we want to show our stance of nonviolence against animals, that nonviolence means more than not fighting wars. The other reason is ecological - vegetarian food, and vegan food in particular, uses much fewer resources in terms of water, land and so on."

"Also," he points out, "this is mainly a poor people's movement, and we wanted the Food Not Bombs model to spread without needing a lot of money. With vegan food, you don't need a steam table or refrigeration to the same extent you do for meat and dairy, so it's less likely that anybody will get ill."

While a portion of the food served is donated - mainly the rice and beans that are a mainstay of FNB meals - a good deal of the food is, as McHenry says, "recovered."

"One of our goals," he says, "is to keep food out of landfills, to make sure that the energy expended to grow and prepare food gets used rather than wasted." FNB volunteers collect food from supermarkets, bakeries and produce stores at the end of day or in the early morning when it's being discarded for fear of spoilage. It may sound dubious to some, but McHenry is quick to point out that there hasn't been a single known case of sickness from a Food Not Bombs meal. With a history going back almost 30 years, that's a lot of meals.

McHenry, a lifelong admirer of Henry David Thoreau, was working to shut down the Seabrook nuclear power plant near Boston when he founded Food Not Bombs in 1980. After seeing a placard that read "It will be a great day when the US military has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber," he and his friends dressed up as generals and held a bake sale. They earned a whopping five dollars, had a great time, and thought it would be just as well to hand out food for free.

Birth of a Free Food Movement

In the early '90's in San Francisco the organization - an all-volunteer network united around principles of nonviolence and consensus-based decision making - became the center of a political firestorm. Bringing out crowds of the homeless and hungry under a city administration that would have preferred the poor remain invisible got many Food Not Bombs volunteers arrested, including McHenry, who was jailed over 100 times. The San Francisco police beat and abused him repeatedly, and under California's Three Strikes law he faced a 25 to life sentence. Amnesty International campaigned for his release and the case was taken up by the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland.

McHenry feels that Food Not Bombs is a lightning rod for government hostility because of its explicit political stance. Different from a soup kitchen or a church-based food drive, the goal of Food Not Bombs is not simply to feed the hungry, but to change the story of hunger that pervades the American psyche.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that there are upwards of 3 million homeless at any given time, with 11 million more at high risk for homelessness. Many of these people are veterans and the working poor, who, with no job security and poor social services, are unable to maintain a steady income or a way to pay for housing. More than this, NPR recently reported that some 38 million people in the US have trouble finding the money to keep food on the table. With public money going to weapons rather than healthcare, housing, education and nutrition, the US homeless epidemic is swept under the rug.

Challenging the idea of Scarcity

By serving free food in public, Food Not Bombs not only addresses these issues directly - it forces the rest of us to confront them as well.

Food Not Bombs is "an affront to capitalism at a number of different levels," says McHenry. "Giving away food under the banner of FNB makes such a strong impact that people might begin to think money should go to human needs and not to the military."

But what about hunger?

"Hunger," McHenry says, "is about a lack of democracy. It's designed to pit each one of us against everybody else. Every one of us is affected directly by hunger in that, when we know there's scarcity, it makes us do things we wouldn't otherwise do. Hunger makes us spend tax dollars on crime, it brings about an underclass that needs to be policed, it brings all the costs of health issues from lack of food."

"But, in the case of Food Not Bombs, we often have so much to share that people can see, visually, that there really isn't scarcity, that there is this abundance of food. People are amazed because nothing in the US is supposed to be free."

A culture founded on the notion of individual liberty tends to ignore the destitute and the hungry because hunger, like homelessness, is seen as a sign of personal weakness. Worse still, hunger reveals that our society is failing in its ability to uphold human dignity. But, as Hurricane Katrina so painfully revealed, people are increasingly feeling a need to take care of themselves. In the best of worlds, taking care of ourselves means taking care of each other.

McHenry likes to point out that the Food Not Bombs philosophy encourages people to take responsibility for their local community and to recognize that because nobody is in charge, everybody is in charge. In testament to this decentralized approach, even though Food Not Bombs has spread around the world, no one knows how many chapters there are.

"Maybe the FBI knows," McHenry says. "But I don't."