Don’t bomb me, feed me
For the past five years a committed group of local activists has fed the hungry of Chico and in the process created a diverse communal gathering rooted in compassion
A protest slogan has to be simple. And catchy. To be seen and heard in the modern world, where product recognition is so tied to memorable sayings, tunes and images, it’s crucial to have a message that can communicate as well if not better than those of the marketing firms.
This is where protesters both win and lose. There’s no mistaking or escaping the messages of such memorable slogans as “Give peace a chance,” “Make love not war” or “U.S. out of my uterus.” But in the political world, where people are elected by making issues very black and white, the messages contained in these slogans are glossed over and pointed to as signs of political allegiances rather than taken for their intended meaning.
“Food Not Bombs” is simple. It’s catchy. It’s also a pretty indisputable message. Choosing to spend money feeding people rather than bombing them sounds like good prioritizing. But the message isn’t getting through—there are still hungry people in this country, and millions of dollars are still spent on the military.
It’s not just the homeless who are hungry either. Working families, or the “working poor,” are joining the poverty ranks at a staggering rate. According to a 2001 study by America’s Second Harvest (the largest domestic hunger-relief organization in America), 39 percent of those seeking hunger relief are working poor.
With chapters all over the world, Food Not Bombs is approaching the simple issue of feeding people with the very simple action of doing just that. Setting up on the sidewalks and in the parks in their respective towns, its members feed anyone who crosses their path. The “Not Bombs” portion of their agenda may appear “for show only” when the group is simply feeding others, but those involved believe that, while it may be subtle activism, by providing a service that the country doesn’t prioritize in favor of military spending—that of reducing wasted resources and feeding hungry people—they are at the very least shining a light on the problem.
“We’re here every weekend,” shared Eva Jalkotzy, a Food Not Bombs volunteer who was outside on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon enjoying a meal with a few dozen friends under the lush canopy of trees at Depot Park, next to the Amtrak depot near downtown.
Each Saturday and Sunday at noon, a crew of volunteers pedals the Food Not Bombs cart down to the park and sets up shop. Providing vegetarian meals for anyone who comes by, they have followed their plan uninterrupted for five years.
Gathering food that would normally be discarded from restaurants and other businesses, as well as receiving fresh produce through donations from farmers and from the Food Not Bombs organic garden, the organization tries to prepare vegan—that is, meat- and dairy-free—meals in line with its beliefs but will utilize dairy products when they’d otherwise spoil.
The food is good too. The smell of fresh garlic bread lingered in the still summer air as people slowly trickled in to grab a plate of salad and enjoy an afternoon in the park together. Alberto Hernandez, a student who often takes advantage of the weekend offerings, echoed a common sentiment among the regulars: “It’s surprisingly good for vegan.”
Blurring the lines between those in need and those better off, the scene at Depot Park resembled a company picnic where people who normally work together decided to put aside the attachments of the business world and gather for a meal and a little interaction.
“I have a steady source of income,” said Micah Martin, a volunteer who loves to come eat in the park. “It’s a great place to gather and talk about these issues.” Issues of hunger, homelessness and the politics of the day are on the agenda for sure, but more important than all the politics is the feeling of community provided by this setup.
“We’re doing one of the most fundamental things in life—eating,” said longtime attendee Harjit Gill. “I’ve met some of my favorite people in this town here. It’s like a communal thing.”
This falls in line with one of the underlying tenets of Food Not Bombs, which, according to its “Seven Steps to Organizing a Local Food Not Bombs,” is to “bring people with different economic backgrounds directly into contact with each other … to make the invisible homeless more visible to those better off economically.”
The dignity that is nurtured in this environment is striking. Mike Jensen is a recognizable activist in the community. He is not homeless, but he really depends on these regular gatherings to help guide him through his recovery. “I’m really glad that Food Not Bombs is on the face of the earth. I need the social interaction. You can interact with people here, help wash dishes, carry stuff to the truck. I can’t necessarily get in the paper, but I can come here [and have a voice].”
More vocal than most of his counterparts, Venezuela (a homeless man who didn’t give his last name and who challenged me to be honest and not to “use the people in the park” to make a name for myself) points to Food Not Bombs as a more dignified option for him and other hungry people. Referring to other help organizations that provide a little religion with the soup, he makes it clear that he disagrees with their methods. “They are liars. … They use the name of Jesus … for the poor? Excuse me? These people here [Food Not Bombs] are different. They treat people like human beings!”
Upset at the fact that he’s hungry and he just wants to eat, Venezuela admitted that to him there’s more dignity in eating out of a Dumpster than suffering through a sermon for food. “If you give something, give with dignity.”
“They don’t want to compromise what they believe,” said Kyle Silliman-Smith, a 19-year old Chico State student who’s one of the central organizers of the local Food Not Bombs chapter. “There’s not a difference between Food Not Bombs people and the people who [come here to] eat. [It’s a place] where we can talk and just be people.”
“It takes care of two major problems—wasted food and people who are hungry,” said volunteer Inga, who didn’t give her last name. Added Silliman-Smith, “Instead of wasting all this food and spending all our money on the military, we should be feeding people.”
Founded in 1980 by anti-nuclear activists in Cambridge, Mass., Food Not Bombs has revolved around the basic idea of spending money on food over war tools as it’s spread from community to community. While the organization does align itself with and provide food for gatherings of similar-minded organizations “on the cutting edge of positive social change,” such as Earth First!, Homes Not Jails and Anarchistic Black Cross, their operation is relatively docile in comparison.
Nonetheless, chapters in both Arcata and San Francisco have faced arrests and lawsuits in an effort stop them from serving free meals based on health issues and even illegal signage. Usually, the idea of stopping people from providing a free service to needy people is enough to dissuade even the most hard-hearted of public officials from worrying too much about such a low-key venture.
“We’ve been pretty much left alone," admitted Silliman-Smith, noting that the police (or people they suspected were police) have stopped by and seen that they’re just feeding people and have let them be.