Anarchists get fed up

Food Not Bombs puts its ideals where your mouth is

Chow time at Cesar Chavez Plaza.

Chow time at Cesar Chavez Plaza.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Every Sunday afternoon, hungry people gather in Sacramento’s Cesar Chavez Plaza for a free meal. A hundred or more line up, trying to stay in the shade as the concrete fountain pours its heart out in the sun. Just south of the fountain, several committed individuals, loosely organized as a group, spoon out the vegetable soup, fruit salad, bread and tofu dishes they prepared that morning.

Food Not Bombs (FNB) originated as an anarchist collective in the 1980s in Cambridge, Mass., among anti-nuclear activists concerned with feeding each other at demonstrations. And though the groups still make sure that those who gather for social protests are provided with free vegan or vegetarian meals while occupied with larger goals, it’s the regular weekly and semiweekly handouts of hot food that have become the groups’ trademark.

Nova Reeves remembers helping to serve the large crowds that assembled in Sacramento last year for the World Trade Organization-related protests and marches. Plenty of those visitors were also FNB members in their own towns, so, Reeves said, there was a lot of help in the kitchen.

Though there is no real structure to the group, hundreds of autonomous chapters have sprung up, not only throughout the United States, but also up and down the American continents as well as in Europe, Asia and Africa.

According to its Web site, FNB is part of a worldwide community of nonviolent progressive groups such as Earth First!, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, Anarchist Black Cross, the Industrial Workers of the World and “other organizations on the cutting edge of positive social change.”

But for individual members, FNB is just a way to take part in a regular, meaningful act of compassion.

“To me, it’s the most simple, basic, act you can do,” said Reeves. “Why should that be revolutionary?”

The free distribution of food has not always been accepted as an innocent act by those in authority. In San Francisco, more than 1,000 arrests have been made by police monitoring that city’s chapter. FNB claims members were “arrested and beaten” during a summit of the European Union in Mexico and also cites recent arrests in Tampa, Fla., and in Santa Cruz, where a cyclist carrying food to a local park was arrested after failing to stop in an intersection when her bike’s brakes failed.

In many American cities, the act of free food distribution is considered “civil disobedience” by authorities. But FNB members keep coming out with the food. And hungry people—often, but by no means always, homeless—are there to eat it.

Davida Douglas, who has been serving free food in Sacramento for the last four years, devotes 10 to 12 hours weekly to the cause. She said she does it because it’s fun: “I’m not torturing myself. Everybody needs to do something worthwhile. [FNB] has got it all: food, friends and fun. Why wouldn’t I want to do it?”

The serving at Cesar Chavez Plaza is a low-key affair. A park security officer is there to watch it begin, sitting in his white pickup near the fountain, but he doesn’t stay long and doesn’t get in line for food.

Reeves said the local police keep a close eye on the event, although she doesn’t know anyone who’s been arrested during her three years of involvement. “They know the routine,” she said.

In other towns—Arcata, for example—the local group parades down H Street with banners and a homemade band shouting slogans in both English and Spanish (“Comida no bombas”), making a feisty and ostentatious spectacle of themselves. It’s not unusual to see a full-fledged demonstration erupt on the corner of the downtown plaza while food is being served, and politics are definitely on the menu. Yet, after years of confrontation, the Arcata police have become more tolerant, and there have been no arrests recently.

In Sacramento, the politics are not out in the open. The group, in keeping with its principles of low-impact activity, arrives on bicycles, towing a bike trailer loaded down with reusable plastic trays, disposable cups and silverware, and sets up that day’s entree on a table as the line forms. Besides the hot meal, the group usually has boxes of produce people can take away for free, and sometimes bread or bagels will be available.

Policies differ when it comes to what each group will serve. Some are called “freegan” and will provide any donations that come their way, from canned pork and beans to day-old supermarket cakes, while others adhere to stricter dietary regimens. Davida, who said she has been vegan for 13 years, maintains that veganism is “definitely an important factor in my life and also an important factor in Food Not Bombs.” She feels that respect for life should be carried over to nonhuman forms, as well, and feels that meat production is not only harmful environmentally, but also detrimental in terms of “health and nutrition.”

In the kitchen, said Reeves, “we end up discussing politics and each other’s lives. … [It’s] a very accepting atmosphere [with] a cooperative spirit, and you’re working hard.” A student working her way toward a teaching credential at California State University, Sacramento, she’s had firsthand experience with hunger. “[FNB] is about subverting the whole profit/wage labor stress. Deep down, we purposely contradict this society of overconsumption. We’re just feeding the public.

“We have plenty to give away and have food to bring home.”