Sacramento threatens Food Not Bombs for feeding hungry in downtown park
City says it’s not targeting the nonprofit and that groups simply need a permit to give away free food
On Sunday afternoons for more than 20 years, volunteers with the nonprofit Food Not Bombs have passed out free vegetarian meals to hungry, low-income Sacramentans at downtown’s Cesar Chavez Plaza park.
This month, however, city police interrupted the organization’s feedings and informed volunteers that giving away free meals is illegal.
On October 6, Food Not Bombs volunteer Ani Durst said she and five others arrived at Cesar Chavez like they normally do each Sunday just before 1:30 p.m., when the nonprofit feeds upward of 100 people.
“We started to set up the tables,” she told SN&R, “and then a police officer on a bicycle told us we couldn’t serve food on that day.”
Durst said the officer explained that the city was “drafting an ordinance” that would ban feeding of low-income and homeless people in public parks.
But the city isn’t working on a new law, according to spokeswoman Linda Tucker. “The code has been in place for years,” she explained.
So why are police only now threatening to enforce the laws, even though Food Not Bombs has been operating downtown for decades?
City police—who were present at the park to monitor an Occupy event—warned that they would confiscate Food Not Bombs’ meals and equipment if the unpaid volunteers tried to serve food or hand out literature. Durst and the others packed up as officers distributed educational fliers about safe food-handling practices. Food Not Bombs exited the park and set up on the east side of Tenth Street, where volunteers say that they passed our free meals to individuals, who then tried to return into the park but were told to leave Cesar Chavez.
“We didn’t want to have a confrontation at that time, because we didn’t know enough about what [police] were talking about,” Durst said.
A week later, this past Sunday, law enforcement did not stop Food Not Bombs from giving away free food. Volunteers said they served more than 100 meals.
“The cops were there, but they hung back,” said Davida Douglas, who’s shared food on Sundays in Cesar Chavez going on 14 years. “We had plenty of folks out there supporting, just basically speaking up for folks’ rights to have food to eat.”
But while Food Not Bombs lives for another weekend, the debate over whether it should be legal to feed Sacramento’s hungry residents continues.
City spokeswoman Tucker said, “It isn’t impossible to go ahead and follow the code.” She cited a church group in South Natomas that regularly feeds the hungry with a permit, which costs $90.
Still, the city’s effort to enforce its feeding laws is new. Earlier this year, Councilman Steve Hansen inquired with city staff about “the feeding of the homeless within City parks,” according to a city memo dated June 11.
But civil-rights attorney Mark Merin, who’s advocated for homeless rights in the past and consulted with Food Not Bombs members last week, said the nonprofit should be exempt from all regulations.
“You can’t require a permit for an organization that is performing a religious function or is political and is doing something that is consistent with its political expression,” he argued. “This attempt to stop something that’s been going on in Sacramento for 20 years will fail.”
Merin said he has notified city leaders that if they try to stop Food Not Bombs, he will “sue to block continued harassment.”
“Groups have a perfect right to organize and demonstrate,” Tucker told SN&R. “The issue here … is food. The code asks that the food be prepackaged, and it also requires that if there are over 50 people at one time, there be a permit.”
Police spokesman Doug Morse told SN&R that “nothing was shut down or removed” when police engaged Food Not Bombs on October 6, and that officers simply were there to educate and hand out fliers about the illegality of homeless feedings. There were no detainees or arrests, he added.
Morse did explain that “there was sort of an Occupy thing going on down there” at Cesar Chavez on that Sunday.
But volunteer Durst says police and the city were focused on getting Food Not Bombs out of Cesar Chavez, and not just targeting an Occupy Wall Street element.
“They were obviously trying to get the whole operation moved out of there,” she said, adding that a police officer suggested Food Not Bombs move its feedings to “near Loaves & Fishes.”
“There was no organized effort to go out and target people who are seemingly doing a good thing. It was more education-focused, to let them know that this is not the ordinance,” city spokeswoman Tucker explained.
Critics, however, question the city’s motive, after 20 years, to now suddenly care about issues such as food poisoning and public health. “I can’t imagine why, other than that they don’t like homeless people in the downtown area,” Merin said.
Meanwhile, is the city’s threat to stop Food Not Bombs part of a larger, national effort to harrass the 35-year-old nonprofit?
Food Not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry told SN&R last week that chapters in other cities—including Olympia, Wash.; Santa Monica, Calif.; Worcester, Mass.; and Taos, N.M.—also were shut down or experienced similar law-enforcement threats this month.
“It’s very rare that it’s all the same weekend,” he explained, adding that FNB’s ties to the Occupy Wall Street movement could be a factor.
October’s recent threats come on the heels of actions against volunteers in Boulder, Colo.; Portland, Ore.; Seattle; Raleigh, N.C.; and other cities this past summer, McHenry added.
The co-founder says that even though it’s an odd time to be threatening people who are feeding the poor—what with the government shutdown, cuts to the food-stamps program, and the stoppage of the Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, program for low-income families—more than 50 cities now have ordinances against such feedings.
Food Not Bombs volunteer Douglas said the city’s priorities are misguided. “If you’re concerned about the health and well-being of people, then you understand the impact of poor nutrition,” she said. “We’ve been there for 20 years; we’ve never made anyone sick. I just don’t believe it.”