Looking Back at Food Not Bombs

Co-founder Keith McHenry on 37 years of feeding the hungry

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Photo by Alonso Hernandez
Photo by Alonso Hernandez

Food Not Bombs, a grassroots activist group founded 37 years ago and working toward feeding the houseless and managing food waste, began when Keith McHenry was a Boston University student working at an organic grocery store.

“I felt bad I was throwing away all this organic produce, so I started taking [it] up [to] the public housing projects,” McHenry said. “[…] When I got there and started talking to the people there every week who I brought the food to, we got to talking about this new building across the street. Turns out, that building was a new weapons lab.”

The building was the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, which housed a U.S. intercontinental nuclear weapons program, McHenry said.

Since becoming aware of nuclear weapon development in his area, McHenry said he made it his mission to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and power. McHenry and seven of his friends started to take action to halt the construction of the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire, right outside of his home in Boston. Their efforts included an attempt to occupy the station.

“Stopping the nuclear power station in Seabrook seemed more urgent than ever,” McHenry said. During these protests, McHenry’s friend, Brian Feigenbaum, was arrested. The collective held bake sales to pay for Feigenbaum’s legal defense and to spread awareness of the threat of nuclear power and war. This led to the name Food Not Bombs.

McHenry, Feigenbaum and six other friends quit their jobs to put all their efforts into collecting food, taking it to various housing projects and bringing the remainder to the streets as cooked meals. This was the creation of the first official Food Not Bombs organization.

McHenry, who now has a major presence in Santa Cruz activism, says the occupation attempt of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station changed his life.

With a growing houseless population in San Francisco and the police’s attempt to drive them out, a second Food Not Bombs group began in the ’80s. But in 1988, volunteers were  arrested for distributing food without a permit.

McHenry said news of these weekly arrests inspired the formation of Food Not Bombs chapters across the U.S. and several other countries. A volunteer-based movement erupted. After 37 years, there are over 1,000 chapters of Food Not Bombs in over 60 countries worldwide.

Although Santa Cruz County’s houseless population has decreased in the past two years, the county still had over 1,964 houseless as of 2015.

“At first I was homeless by choice, then it turned into homeless by circumstance,” said Bob Rees, who has been houseless in Santa Cruz for the past eight years.

Each week, Food Not Bombs provides up to 150 people, including Rees, with fresh, vegan meals made from the surplus food that grocery stores would typically throw out.

Houselessness has especially been a topic of debate in Santa Cruz in light of the erected “forbidden” fence and Municipal Code 6.36.010. The code is more commonly known as the Sleeping Ban and prohibits sleeping, setting up campsites in areas unintended for human occupancy and setting up bedding in public or in vehicles from 11 p.m. to 8:30 a.m.

During last Saturday’s meal distribution, dozens of houseless people holding paper plates filled with food sat against the “forbidden” fence that encircles the post office.

Installed last March, the fence is often decorated with clothes, stuffed animals and signs stating, “Sleeping is not a crime.”

The fence is intended to prevent damage to the nearly 105-year-old post office building after concerns of the houseless urinating and defecating on the steps and along the side of the building. But for many houseless, including Bob Rees, the fence has been a metaphor for Santa Cruz’s unwelcoming climate.

There were local efforts to put an end to Food Not Bombs meal distribution through a petition that gained over 100 signatures. In response, McHenry launched his own petition in support of Food Not Bombs and received over 11 times more signatures.

For the past five years, Rees has been receiving meals from Food Not Bombs. “It helps. A person needs to eat,” Rees said.