The Processed World collective take a look at the free-food activist group Food Not Bombs!
Most Americans suffer from the nagging suspicion that someone, somewhere is getting something for free. This fear turns positively phobic when it comes to poor people getting anything, particularly food. When people actually organize themselves to distribute free food without the benefit of proper authority, this anxiety is prone to erupt into action.
Food has long been a potent tool for controlling population, from the Chinese empire with its control of basic foodstuffs, through England in the early years of the industrial revolution (said the Anglican Reverend Mr. Townshend: "Hunger, on the contrary, is not only a pressure which is peaceful, silent and incessant, but as it is the most natural motive for work and industry it also provokes to the most powerful efforts."), to the current government manipulation of commodity exchange programs to punish enemies and reward friends. It still is seen that way, as evidenced by the following quotes from Salt Lake City businessmen:
"The distribution of free food is a big mistake. You need to require some kind of exchange, some type of appropriate work. Otherwise it just becomes an addiction."1
"To continually give free food to able-bodied people makes them feel worthless, when in fact these people have great worth -- they need to be working. ... Work would actually do them as much good as the free food. Simply handing someone a sandwich isn't going to do much good. The very idea of self-sufficiency, for some reason, has become passé in this country." 2
This attitude blithely ignores that permanent unemployment is now admittedly the rule. It also ignores the fact that there are literally millions of people who could work, but can't because the system doesn't provide any jobs. Let's not even mention those so maimed, physically and emotionally, that they can't work anymore and have to survive on the state's largess.
During times of civil strife, feeding people can be a subversive act. Consider the following quote from an Appalachian miner about strike conditions during the Great Depression:
"It finally came down to the poor, if you was tryin' to feed any of these starving people, you was trying to overthrow the government. And if they beat you up or killed you for doing this, that was law and order." 3
In a current case an outfit called Food Not Bombs has been suffering both persecution and prosecution by San Francisco's finest, including their ex-chief, Mayor Frank Jordan. Although they are not formally banned from distributing food in San Francisco, they are limited to doing so in one park in the extreme south-west corner of the city (an area not noted for its large homeless population). FNB prefers to bring its food to where very poor people congregate, such as near City Hall. This incenses the Mayor, who has made "cleaning up" some of these areas one of the chief priorities of his "Matrix" anti-homeless campaign. It also provokes hysteria in those simple-witted souls who believe that such food programs attract homeless people to "their" city.
FNB originated in Cambridge, MA, in the early '80s. As Keith McHenry, one of the founder of FNB tells it, there had been a very intense confrontation at Seabrook, NH, protesting the construction of a nuclear power plant. Although it was slowed, overwhelming state force carried the day. The sand-blasting cannons, the mace and brutality, and the long hours all took their toll, leading to a search for other ways to work against the nuclear power industry. Protest activities were planned for a shareholder's meeting, one of which was a street theater performance of a soup kitchen a la the great depression. The original idea was to use costumed protesters to portray the denizens of the soup line, but then someone suggested actually serving food to "real" people. Leaflets were put in nearby areas advertising the give-away, and on the appointed day the performance went off marvelously; they even got a donation from a shareholder!
They discovered real satisfaction in providing something tangible to people who needed it, and FNB was born. The group has since inspired a host of fellow-travelers across the country --a recent FNB newsletter lists more than 40 contact in the US and Canada -- and these far-flung chapters share many common traits. They serve vegetarian food both for reasons of politics (objections to killing animals) and for practical reasons (meat is harder to store and prepare safely). It is run by volunteers who operate by consensus (i.e. agreement by all participants, instead of "majority rules").
Food is donated to FNB by local merchants; day-old bagels, vegetables and fruits that are cosmetically blemished or aged but still palatable, etc. One FNBer told us that at first he tended to take everything offered, but with time he became more discriminating and only accepted food that would be useful: the point is not to provide merchants with free waste disposal, but to feed people. The food is prepared in someone's kitchen or, more rarely, an institutional kitchen. Most of the groups don't have reliable space to store food for very long, so the work of collecting food and preparing it is endless. When donation run short or when special items are needed, the group must conjure up the money.
This attitude and poverty distinguishes FNB form the government-sanctified food pantries and soup kitchens of the formal charities. Many food pantries exist to collect unusable "food" (soda pop, meat tenderizer, etc.), thus giving the grocers and warehouses a free disposal of stale or unsellable food and a nice tax break. Needless to say, much of this stuff is inedible and even more is just not usable (how much meat tenderizer can people living in shelters or houses with no kitchens use?). Much of this charity is waste; the remainder is doles out to people who are made to suffer long waits, bureaucratic hassles and the like for food that may actually be dangerous, like some of the cheese in the US government's hand-outs which was so high in sodium that it was dangerous for some people.
Partly out of such concerns, FNB is relentlessly vegetarian; indeed, it is occasionally the scene of debate between vegetarians and "vegans" who eschew all products from animals, even milk and eggs. Some time ago, the San Francisco FNB found to its horror that it had been serving chicken soup, donated by a volunteer who though of it, and presented it as, "vegetarian." Despite the misgivings of the volunteers, the soup was wildly popular with the consumers and so it was still served for a while. Generally, the "warning" that it contained chicken broth would set off a scramble for it. Likewise, when given pizzas (ordered but not picked up and donated the next day) FNB segregates the ones with meat and passes the out surreptitiously. This raises the issue that recipients are being fed only what their benefactors think is good for them, but for FNB this concern is outweighed by the fear of the potential damage possible from spoiled meat. Where a bad bagel can make you feel queasy, tainted meat can kill.
Indeed, to the best of our knowledge there has never been a single case of FNB giving someone food poisoning, an occurrence we can be sure the local press would be fast to publicize. True, some of the food, especially in places where lots of meals are served, tends towards the "industrial" (Keith's word), but it is healthy and filling. Curiously, the sanitation types who dog FNB's efforts seem to be very concerned with the cleanliness of food (or, more accurately, with proper bureaucratic obstacles being properly crossed) but not at all concerned with the problem that food alleviates: hunger. Whether in San Francisco or Salt Lake City, real hunger is not considered a problem while the change that some food might be tainted in a problem. Consider the following example of an officially sanctioned outfit in New York:
"Then there's the problem of feeding operation to which City Harvest will deliver nothing. One open air kitchen run by homeless people shacked up in a contemporary Hooverville on the Lower East Side was rejected by Palit (director of the City Harvest food collection program)as not clean enough. City Harvest staff were so appalled that they took a collection and bought 25 pounds of rice to give. 'Health Issues' would be the excuse for turning down less formal operations Coming from the people who claim prevention of starvation is the 'health issue' they are addressing, the excuse if flimsy at best. Then again, encouraging real community-based, grass-roots self-help has never been the aim of the discard market."
Another FNB hallmark is its attempt to not only treat the recipients of their food with respect, but to enlist them in the process. Some people may have skills that can contribute directly (mechanics to keep vehicles running, etc.) while others may have fewer skills but can still chop vegetable or wash pots. This shows that the problem is not a lack of work or of workers, but a lack of opportunity for someone to profit off that labor.
Indeed, the entire issue of scarcity is an odd one, for there is lots of cheap food in this country. Consider the following observation:
"Trouble was, the entire food movement was based on a false set of assumptions. We (Funiciello et al) tried to insert our views. It was senseless to treat the problem here the way it would be treated in countries where there simply was no food at all. In the United States food was and is in everyone's refrigerator (if they aren't poor, that is). It is in grocery stores everywhere. You cannot go out to dinner an any of thousand of restaurants and imagine food scarcity has been in any way a problem here. Ours is not a nation without food but one of vast, embarrassing abundance. The issue of individual families' poverty could not be solved returning them to the stone age of breadlines. Establishing institutionalized begging sites was never a solution. It wasn't food that was missing. Poor people lacked the normal means of access: money. Anything other than that would become a means of further separating the haves and have-nots. Anything else would be amoral heist of poor people and a helluva waste of time and resources."5
Separating the haves from the have-nots became something of an obsession for Mayor Jordan, who defeated his liberal predecessor by heavily touting a general "law and order" rhetoric and vaguely promising to "clean up the city." Just as California Governor Pete Wilson rode to re-election via his carefully orchestrated crusade against "illegal immigrants" (e.g. the notorious Proposition 187), so did Jordan skillfully managed to scapegoat the homeless as convenient, politically vulnerable bogey people.
The "need" to clear unsightly panhandlers from touristy areas was used to justify a host of programs and laws intended to "clean up" the city. The "Matrix" program mentioned above provided vans to pick up the homeless from the city streets -- but the absence of shelters meant they really didn't have place to take them. A number of laws were minted to protect citizens from "aggressive panhandling." Their constitutionality is still being debated by the courts. These laws are almost moronic exercises in spite, authoritarianism, and fear-mongering that do more to assuage the guilt of tight-fisted curmudgeons and win the support of cold-hearted reactionaries than the do to "solve" any of the underlying problems. The most recent one, a law that would have made sitting on the pavement illegal in certain (upper-crust) areas was defeated by a narrow margin in the latest election.
It is not surprising, therefore, that FNB has become a particular bête noire for the Jordan administration. Jordan tries to clear the homeless from out in front of City Hall; FNB sets up tables there to distribute bread and soup.
It is hard to imagine a more striking contradiction of philosophies. Jordan says these people have no right to food, to dignity, to even a place to sit on the sidewalk; he implicitly denies that they need money, housing or nutrition. The "problem" from his perspective is one of image.
1: David Thomas, president of Salt Lake Voice Exchange, cited in "Food Fight" by Ben Fulton, Private Eye Weekly, June 29, 1994, pg. 10.
2: Mike Place, president of Wesco Development, Inc., in Salt Lake City. In "Food Fight," op cit.
3: Tillman Cadle, a coal miner, speaking about condition during a National Miners Unions strike in Kentucky in "Dreadful Memories," a video about Sarah Ogun Gunning (1910 - 1983), a folk singer. 1988, Appalshop & Headwaters.
4: "Tyranny of Kindness: Dismantling the welfare system to end poverty in America," Theresa Funiciello, 1993, The Atlantic Monthly Press.
5: "Tyranny of Kindness," op cit., pg. 127