8 – Revolutionary Free Lunch

East Bay Food not Bombs

Serving Location: People’s Park

Time: Everyday at 3:00 PM

By Nameless

I first encountered Food not Bombs while wandering the streets of Eureka, California. It was Sunday afternoon and the soup kitchens were closed. The local “Rescue Mission” in Eureka, which did serve dinners and breakfast, looked more like a military compound with high fences and gates surrounding it. They referred to the food they provided as “services”. If you pissed them off, were too loud, or were drunk, they would refuse you “services”. They also were always trying to help those in need find low paying service sector jobs. So, wandering the streets of Eureka on a Sunday, hungry and tired, I came across a group of people standing in a little plaza. Two people were handing out hot food: a vegan burrito (lentils, rice, and potatoes), some water, and pastries. People were standing around, cheerful, eating and talking. It was the most wonderful meal I have ever eaten. I asked them what group they were with and they replied, “Food not Bombs”. 

I came across FnB again in Berkeley, CA while staying around People’s Park. One day after eating a meal, I asked members if they needed help preparing the food. I found out that Wednesdays and Thursdays were always accepting volunteers. That’s how I learned the difference between solidarity and charity: preparing food with Greg on Wednesday mornings…

Wednesday morning I walked into the kitchen, pots and pans clanging. Greg is standing at the sink draining beans. Boxes of produce line the counter. I pick out a knife and a cutting board. I sort through the produce: lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, fennel, greens. I grab a bowl and a colander. I grab the ripest tomatoes, some peppers, some fennel, and some celery. I stand at the sink and wash each vegetable. Then, I sort through the lettuce, tearing off and discarding bad pieces. The fresh pieces I wash, each leaf. I start cutting the produce for the salad while Greg is making the pasta. I’ve been watching him make it every Wednesday and Thursday for months but I still haven’t figured out why Greg’s pasta is so damn good. 

I ask Greg when he started volunteering with Food not Bombs. He tells me he’s been volunteering for 14 years. He had traveled here to support his friend Brian Willson who was an activist trying to prevent weapons from the Concord Naval Weapons Station from being shipped to Central America. In one such action, Willson and other activists tried to block a weapons train from leaving, but the conductor of the train had been advised not to stop the train. The train struck Willson, leading to the amputation of both of his legs. Greg had originally planned to travel to Nicaragua to prevent the Contras from terrorizing the population, but had decided first to try to prevent the weapons from being transported overseas. Greg arrived in the East Bay and began participating in anti-weapon actions at Concord. That’s also when he started eating Food not Bombs meals. Years later after the financial crisis of 2008, which Greg calls the “great bank robbery of 08,” he was freed to spend more time participating with Food Not Bombs. Greg tells me, “It was a Friday at the park. Dickie showed up and had to tell a bunch of hungry people that there was no food. He hadn’t been able to get the keys to the truck to pick up the food. I decided that day to make it my mission in life to ensure that that never happened again.” One of Greg’s qualities, common to many Food not Bombs volunteers is that they are not deterred from providing free food to people. I recall one time when the FnB truck didn’t show up on time at the kitchen for volunteers to take the food to the park. Greg loaded all the food onto food carts and volunteers pushed the food 8 blocks to Peoples Park. Greg serves every Wednesday and Thursday at People’s Park at 3:00 PM and every Sunday in Oakland. The determination of Food not Bombs to its principles has existed since its founding.

I spoke with Keith McHenry who helped start the first Food not Bombs chapter in Cambridge, MA, and later the second chapter in San Francisco. After 8 years of providing meals and conducting activist actions around Boston, McHenry said it was a little shocking how the city of San Francisco responded to Food not Bombs. In August of 1988, McHenry and eight others were arrested for serving free food. The arrests continued for years. Thousands of volunteers were arrested.McHenry was arrested over 100 times. I asked McHenry if he was ever deterred from continuing with Food not Bombs after the police crackdown. He responded, “Hell no, no one is going to stop me from serving Food not Bombs meals.” McHenry stated that he believed it wasn’t the fact that they were providing free food that caused the city to respond in such a manner, but rather that they had a political message. They were serving food to the public in busy places where diverse groups of people of all economic classes were present. They were shining a light on the failures of capitalism, providing activist literature, sparking conversations, and asking a simple question: “With all of this wealth and resources, why are we building, selling, and using weapons to kill, maim, and terrorize populations overseas, when we could be using those resources to feed people, to provide housing, education, healthcare, opportunities for learning.”

It wasn’t just the city of San Francisco that had a problem with the political nature of Food not Bombs. The federal government has considered FnB a potential terrorist threat. In a guest lecture at the University of Texas School of Law a senior FBI agent, Charles Rasner listed Food not Bombs as an organization on the FBI’s local terror watch list. Food not Bombs chapters, overseas, have also been targeted with violence and repression from other governments as well as neo-nazi groups. 

The most beautiful thing about FnB is that you can start it anywhere. There are thousands of Food not Bombs groups all over the world. The groups are autonomous, they have no leadership, no hierarchies. They adhere to the simple set of principles:

1.The food is always vegan and vegetarian and free to everyone without restriction, rich or poor, stoned, drunk, or sober.

2. Food not Bombs has no formal leaders or headquarters, and every group is autonomous and makes decisions using the consensus process.

3. Food not Bombs is dedicated to nonviolent direct action and works for nonviolent social change.

McHenry’s advice for a FnB group is to serve food in a busier location and at a time of day when lots of people are on the streets. He said that in addition to food, groups should have a literature table with pamphlets or zines. 

Food not Bombs is a powerful model for solidarity and mutual aid. They provide some relief from the suffering caused by capitalism while also shining a light on the causes of that suffering by engaging with the wider public in conversations as to the causes of poverty and food insecurity. Food not Bombs also confronts us constantly with a simple question: “Why should our resources and taxes go into killing, maiming, and terrorizing populations overseas when it could be spent on feeding every person, providing resources for learning, for healthcare, for housing?”