The frosty air of Washington/Jefferson Park is cut by the warm and lightly salty smell of soup, replacing the typical myriad of aromas associated with the area. It’s served out of red plastic cups, which are in the cardboard box of fresh produce, including Red Delicious apples, and oranges.
Standing under a brightly colored mural of a deer on one of the concrete supports for the massive overpass, Sean Parson struggles to keep out the cold by adjusting his stocking cap and gloves.
He says he expects only five to six people to show up. That’s five to six compared to the much larger groups that meet during the summer months. Then the group can get up around 40, including volunteers.
But today, Parson is the only one of the Food Not Bombs members who is bearing the freezing temperatures with the homeless who have gathered for the meal. The winter means fewer of them will show up, but Food Not Bombs stays for the ones who do.
“If you’re cold and you’ve found a warm place, you’re not going to want to go anywhere,” he says.
Meanwhile, a homeless man eating at a bench nearby is trying to figure out how he will keep warm that night. Parson steps away to call for accommodations for him.
“Do you have sleep gear?” another homeless man asks.
“No. I aint got nothing.”
“Alright, I can try to hook you up.”
“But when it’s cold, there’s more reason for us to be out here,” he says, picking up where he left of. “People are really hungry.”
FnB Comes to Eugene
While Food Not Bombs has been active off-and-on in Eugene since the 1990s, Parson and friends saw an opportunity to grow the movement when he moved to Eugene in 2004.
As well as being a core member of Food Not Bombs, Parson is also a Graduate Teaching Fellow at the University of Oregon, where he is writing his dissertation on Food Not Bombs and the police harassment the San Francisco chapter faced during the late 80s and early 90s.
As part of a loosely related national organization, members collect food that cannot be sold but can be eaten from businesses like food co-ops and restaurants. The food is then prepped and turned into hot and healthy vegetarian and vegan meals for anyone who’s hungry, as a statement against poverty and what they see an inflated military budget.
More than 1,000 worldwide chapters comprise the movement, which is rooted in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980. The name references an economic model that suggests that in order to make more guns – a military good, a nation must produce less butter – a civilian good.
“We’re spending close to five to six hundred billion on defense, and we still don’t have the ability to feed and house everyone who lives around here,” he says.
Anatomy of a Meal
It’s up to the person who “bottom lines” the event to plan for the feed. The preparation and cooking take place in the home of a member who has the means, and the menu varies week to week based on what resources they have and what kind of turnout they expect.
Generally. only a couple people are needed. One to three people can make enough food for one of the feeds, but, as Parson is quick to point out, help always makes the work go faster. It also makes the long hours standing in a freezing park more endurable.
“If need be, there’s enough food to have five to six days of serving,” Parson says. “But to do that you need 40-50 people.”
They usually have enough left over to store and freeze for future feeds, or to redistribute to the needy.
Other Food Not Bombs chapters often recover recently thrown away food that is still wrapped and perfectly edible – a process they call “dumpstering.” The Eugene chapter doesn’t have to dumpster food, though, thanks to plenty of donations.
Co-op grocery stores are usually their best donators. Most of the food for Eugene’s Food Not Bombs chapter comes from Sundance Natural Foods, which typically donates 15 pounds of distressed produce a week. They also get donations from the Red Barn Natural Grocery, Surata Soyfoods, Holy Cow Café, and Eugene City Bakery.
“Eugene is really one of the best food relief places I’ve ever seen,” he says.
In the Whiteaker
On Sundays from three to five p.m. they serve free meals in the Washington/Jefferson Park, which acts as a dividing line between the Whiteaker neighborhood (fondly called “the Whit” by its inhabitants) and downtown.
The location was no accident, either. The national reputation the Whit earned for its connection to the ‘Battle for Seattle’ riots in the 90s and Green Anarchy also make the radical Food Not Bombs right at home.
Not only were most of the original founders of Eugene’s Food Not Bombs from the Whit, but also the park’s physical proximity to the train tracks and the Eugene Mission make it a hub for the homeless community.
The group used to also serve in Ken Kesey Square in downtown Eugene, but lately has not, due mostly to a lack of manpower.
Problems of Piousness
Unlike many food relief organizations, Food Not Bombs is not connected to any church or organized religion, something that both helps and hurts them.
“A lot churches use food as a sort of a carrot to get [homeless people] to sit in the pew,” he says “A lot of places if you want food you have to sit through a sermon.”
He says that the lack of religious affiliation makes law enforcement uncomfortable, but that the people they serve appreciate it.
“It’s amazing how often our political views end up being very similar. A lot of them are vets who have been screwed over by the veterans association, and are very anti-military,” he says.
“But whenever cops show up, the first question they ask is: ‘What church are you with?’ I don’t think you would have had the arrests in San Francisco if it were a church function.”
While the Eugene chapter has itself been free of police harassment, several homeless people have been arrested at Food Not Bombs during the build up to the 2008 Olympic trials. The arrests were for previous alcohol-related violations.
Although a growing number of families have been put on the street by hard financial times, about 90% of the people Food Not Bombs serves to are men. Parson describes them as “the people you see in parks.”
“Feeding in public space brings out people who are visibly homeless,” Parson says. “Other demographics are generally given places to stay, and there’s also more of an imperative to help kids – which is why when people think of homelessness, they don’t think of a woman with a kid. They think of a Vietnam vet asking for change.”
The fact that all of the food served by Food Not Bombs is vegetarian or vegan is both a pragmatic decision and a philosophic one that is deep-rooted in the identity of the movement.
“The philosophic animal rights argument is really the main reason, Parson says, “but as an addition, vegetarian and vegan food last longer. If you’re doing dumpstering, it’s a lot harder to dumpster dairy or meats,” Parson says.
“There’s also a general issue of tying militarism and violence into our food systems, and the fact that the raising of cattle for meat or dairy is a very brutal and violent practice. “
While they pull back from making an ethical blanket statement about meat eating, they encourage vegetarianism for political, spiritual and economic reasons as a “direct challenge to the injustice of the military/industrial economic system,” according to Food Not Bombs’ main website.
Individual chapters may accept products containing meat and dairy and, although they often will not prepare the food themselves. The Eugene chapter steers clear of meat, but will accept pre-prepared dishes with dairy or egg and will warn diners if a dish isn’t vegan.
“We’d rather it not get thrown away, is how we look at it,” Parson says.
This spring, the group has to consider a new home for their feeds. The deer mural in Washington/Jefferson Park has kept them dry through many Oregon winters, but new construction means the area may be closed down to build a skate park.
Also, a growing number of homeless will not go into the park for fear of police harassment for alcohol convictions.
For now, they are debating whether to go for maximum convenience, or impact. One of the benefits of the Ken Kesey Square feedings was an increased visibility of hunger and homelessness, but it also brought more of the unwanted attention of police.
“Is this about making a political statement or about feeding people?” Parson says.
“If it’s about feeding people, Washington/Jefferson will be easier. But visibility is nice because it reminds people there are many homeless and hungry people in Eugene. It’s putting needy people at risk of possible harassment … but at the same time, why should we be afraid of feeding in a public space?”
As he packs up the remaining food from the day, the remaining diners wander off. He might see them next week, or he might not. Even regular visitors of the feeds have been known to disappear, never to be heard from again.
But they’ll know if they come back, because Food Not Bombs will be there again next week. And the week after that, as long as there are people willing to do it.
“The biggest thing is just getting people involved,” Parson says. “Outreach is always hard because there’s not enough people to go an outreach campaign. It’s fun, but it’s not the most glamorous activism. It’s fun to cook, but it’s not always fun to hang out with people and eat in 20-degree weather.”
(Adapted from instructions on website)
At the outset, starting a Food Not Bombs might seem like more than you can handle. Work on the basics, taking one step at a time. One person cannot be a Food Not Bombs group, but one person can start one.
Step 1: Start by getting a phone number, email address and a mailing address. Use a commercial mailbox or post office box for your permanent address. (As your membership changes, your mailing address can remain the same and you won’t have to redo your literature.)
Step 2: Next, make flyers announcing the existence of a local Food Not Bombs group. By handing them out at events, posting them around town, and/or mailing them out to your friends, you will start getting phone calls, mail, and additional volunteers.
Step 3: The next step is to arrange for the use of a vehicle. This can be a major challenge or it might not. Between the members of your group, there might be enough vehicles of the right size for your needs. In some cases its better to use bikes and bike carts. (This is very common in Europe.)
Step 4: With flyers in hand, begin looking for sources of food. The first places to approach are the local food co-ops and health food stores. Explain that you are willing to collect any food which is still edible but which will not or cannot be sold. Tell them you plan to give the food to feed hungry people as well as deliver it to shelters and soup kitchens
Step 5: Deliver this bulk food to shelters and meal kitchens. It is important to get to know the food pantries and soup kitchens in your area. Learn where they are located, whom they serve, and how many they serve.
Step 6: It won’t be long before the network of a few stores and bakeries will be giving more food than you will be able to distribute to shelters. With the extra food, start to prepare meals to serve on the streets. Giving out meals at a rally builds community and supports the cause in a very direct way.
Step 7:Once there are enough people involved, consider serving meals one day a week to the homeless on the street in a visible way. Pick areas which have high volume and diverse pedestrian traffic. Locations which are highly visible are desirable because part of our mission is to help make the invisible homeless more visible to those better off, economically.
Today each of the more than 1,000 world-wide chapters protests against war and poverty (and the US military budget, seen as the place the two collide) by collecting food that would otherwise be thrown out and turning it into hot and healthy vegan and vegetarian meals for anyone who’s hungry, as well as collecting for food banks.
Since its inception, it has acted without any sort of central authority. Each of the chapters, which are spread across six continents, is autonomous. Without hierarchy, decisions are made by ultra-democratic consensus.
Organizers publish advice to those who wish to start a chapter, which is available both online as well as in a book available for purchase on their website.
The unapologetically radical roots of Food Not Bombs have left it fighting an uphill battle with politicians and policy makers who seem to have a bad taste in their mouths for the organization.
When one of the original founders of the group moved to San Francisco in the late ‘80s, he joined with members of the Abalone Alliance – a west coast analog of the Clamshell Alliance – started a Food Not Bombs chapter.
All was going well until they applied for a permit from the city, which was denied and did little more than announce their presence to less than sympathetic law enforcement.
That chapter alone has since been arrested more than 1,000 times, in what the website calls “government effort to silence protest against the city’s anti-homeless policies.” Amnesty International, who deems them “Prisoners of Conscience,” usually represents them.
The website also claims that: “Even though we are dedicated to nonviolence Food Not Bombs activists in the United States have been under investigation by the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, Pentagon and other intelligence agencies. A number of Food Not Bombs volunteers have been arrested on terrorism charges.”