No permit, no problem

Food Not Bombs decision to feed the hungry without a permit is deliberate

Food Not Bombs co-founder C.T. Lawrence Butler (left) and local organizer Jayme Beres believe giving food away is a form of protest.

Food Not Bombs co-founder C.T. Lawrence Butler (left) and local organizer Jayme Beres believe giving food away is a form of protest.

Photo by Ken Smith

For Jayme Beres, Saturday mornings aren’t for sleeping in. By 9:30 a.m., he’s usually elbow deep in chopped vegetables, preparing lunch for 50 or more exceptionally hungry people, and occasionally wondering if he’ll end up spending the night in jail for the effort.

“I think what we’re doing is right, and I’m not afraid of getting arrested,” Beres said last Saturday (June 29) in his home kitchen as he diced Japanese eggplant and zucchini. “If people ask what I’m in jail for and I can say, ‘Feeding people without a permit,’ I’m OK with that.”

Beres is a member of the Chico chapter of Food Not Bombs, which distributes vegan meals every Saturday at 12:30 p.m. on the southwest corner of City Plaza. Last summer, both Food Not Bombs and another group dedicated to feeding the homeless—Orchard Church, which distributed dinners on Sunday evenings—were advised by city park rangers that they couldn’t operate without a permit. That sparked at least two other citizen-organized food giveaways at the site, including one by Chicoan Patrick Newman (see “Out of sight, out of mind,” Jan. 23, 2014).

While the church investigated the difficult and costly permit process and eventually compromised with Chico officials to distribute from behind the municipal building, Food Not Bombs made a temporary retreat to a spot in front of the City Council chambers, but returned to the plaza in March.

“We feel that we are not a charity, we are feeding people as a protest, and that we’re bringing light to social inequality,” Beres explained, noting the group has largely flown under the radar since returning to the plaza. A ranger did visit June 7 without requesting to see a permit, but Beres said he believes it’s only a matter of time before they are hassled again by officials.

“It’s our First Amendment right to practice freedom of speech,” he said. “That’s what we are doing and will keep doing.”

Food Not Bombs has been activist- oriented since it began in the Boston area three decades ago. It is a loose-knit group of independent collectives active in hundreds of American cities, as well as internationally. The group is founded on the belief that homelessness, hunger and other social ills are curable problems perpetuated by government and corporate interests. Groups commonly and deliberately distribute meals, sans permits, in high-profile, high-traffic areas.

Chico has been home to several Food Not Bombs groups over the years and the latest incarnation, in keeping with the larger organization’s activist spirit, emerged from the Occupy Chico and Occupy Chico State efforts in 2011. Beres is a founding member of the local group, which consists of several part-time or occasional members and about a half-dozen stalwarts. He also said last year’s brush with the city was tough on morale, and several members left the group fearing a crackdown by authorities.

As for public opinion, Beres said the plaza actions “definitely turn some heads,” but conflict is rare.

“In my whole time doing this, there’s only been one guy who came up and said what we are doing is wrong, and that we were encouraging homeless people to come here,” he said. “People love to say that from the safety of their keyboard, but when they actually come down and have to see hungry and helpless people, it’s hard to witness and then say it’s wrong.”

Beres said the Chico group’s largest suppliers of food are Chico Natural Foods and the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market. The Chico Peace and Justice Center also helps by collecting cash donations for cooking oil and other staples, storing the group’s tables and providing space to wash dishes.

Last Saturday’s menu included stir-fried vegetables and fruit salad, rice, whole apples and iced tea. As about three dozen people (not all of them homeless, Beres pointed out) sat on the grass enjoying the meal, two young Food Not Bombs members went to the market to collect donations, returning with hand-trucks brimming with fresh produce, much of which was distributed to the assembled mass.

Among those gathered for Food Not Bombs’ meal last week was one of the organization’s co-founders, C.T. Lawrence Butler, who, along with fellow activist Keith McHenry, literally wrote the book on the group’s history, philosophy and structure—Food Not Bombs: How to Feed the Hungry and Build Community. He also has written two other books, titled On Conflict and Consensus and Consensus for Cities of 100,000. Butler and his partner currently reside in the Magalia area, where they moved earlier this year, and he offered more insight into the organization.

Butler, who has been arrested more than 50 times during nonviolent direct actions against war, poverty and injustice, said that he “became awake” as an activist in the late 1970s, with his initial interest focused on environmental and nuclear power issues. He was also working in the restaurant industry, and was shocked by the amount of waste he saw.

“In the beginning we were just feeding ourselves,” he said. “Restaurants were more than happy to give up their leftovers, and we started distributing it to other anarchist and activist houses around Cambridge [Mass.]. Before too long, we had more food than we knew what to do with, so we started cooking it and serving it at protests and political actions.”

Butler explained Food Not Bombs has always been exclusively vegetarian, which he described as a political and practical move. Politically, the organization opposes animal cruelty and the amount of resources used to raise animals for meat. From a practical standpoint, he said, “It’s really hard to make anyone sick by feeding them vegetarian food, because you can tell when it’s gone bad by the smell and the taste, unlike bad meat and dairy, which can actually kill people.”

Butler said the original Cambridge group was, and still is, focused on bulk food, and today distributes approximately 2 million pounds of food to Boston and its surrounding communities each year. He said he’s currently working on starting a similar bulk food distribution here in the North State.