Free Food

By Josh Wolf

Food Not Bombs – the activist group for food justice – has existed since 1980, and has over 1,000 chapters all over the world. I wanted to learn more about their work, so a few days ago, I spoke with Izzi, a third year student at The Evergreen State College. Izzi has been involved with Food Not Bombs (FNB) ever since he first came to Olympia.

FNB embodies an idea we have all heard before: “With over a billion people going hungry each day, how can we spend another dollar on war?” Bumper stickers and hippies may have normalized the imbalance between military funding and food programs, but FNB takes injustice very seriously. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, America’s food industry throws away about 27% of its food: that’s about 263,013,699 pounds of food every day. FNB “recovers and shares free vegan or vegetarian food with the public without restriction.”

So, how does Olympia’s FNB recover all of this food? “We get our food from donations. The Farmers Market gives us their leftover produce when they’re in season, and so does the Food Bank. The Co-Op gives us a donation every month too. And sometimes neighbors bring us food from their gardens,” says Izzi. FNB depends on people helping to make food that would normally be thrown away available to the public.

[pullquote_right]“It’s more of a protest than a charity. It’s building the world that we wish to see…Working with food makes the most sense for us, because food is a basic need,” says My’kel.[/pullquote_right]

“The practice has a lot to do with it,” says Izzi about FNB’s methods. FNB always shares vegan or vegetarian food that is free to anyone, without any restriction. Serving meat would cause a lot of problems for FNB: spoilage issues, violence towards animals, and the pollution of the meat industry, just to name a few.

The distinguishing elements of FNB are its principles. “It’s not a soup kitchen, it’s not a charity. It’s more of a community,” says Izzi. FNB recognizes the stigma that may be attached to accepting free food, or donations. Other projects provide an important service of feeding people, but unintentional problems can arise from traditional charities.  Hungry people may be judged for standing in line to get food. To destroy the unhealthy stigmas involved with more traditional soup kitchens, FNB invites all people to share in their food: “rich or poor, stoned or sober,” as stated in their main principles.

FNB is involved in more than food justice. “FNB is about empowering people, and recognizing people’s autonomy,” says My’kel, another member of the FNB community. “We shouldn’t have to call it FNB; it should just be a way of life. We should take care of each other’s needs every day.” FNB is an example for people, and it shows them a different perspective: that food is a right, not a privilege.

“It’s more of a protest than a charity. It’s building the world that we wish to see…Working with food makes the most sense for us, because food is a basic need,” says My’kel.

The history of FNB illuminates some of their non-violent direct action protests, and why they still exist today. Izzi told me that in 1980, Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the founding members of FNB was arrested during a demonstration against a nuclear power station. In order to raise funds for legal fees, the friends had a bake-sale protest. They dressed up in military uniforms, and said they were raising money to buy an F-16. They were inspired by the popular bumper sticker: “It will be a great day when our schools get the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” This was the first of many non-violent direct actions using street theater to convey their message. And it is one of their most important messages, says My’kel. “A lot of our taxes go to the military, and that’s not productive. What’s productive is making sure that people are fed.”

Today, FNB provides food at protests in solidarity with non-violent direct action.

But giving away free food is more dangerous than you’d think. Small businesses and major food corporations may feel threatened when someone is providing the same service for free. ie: Why would I pay $12 for a meal when I can get healthy, hot, and sustainable food for free? For me, this is what makes FNB a radical project. Just a few weeks ago, The Olympian reported that a local Christian group can no longer give food to hundreds of people every Thursday and Saturday night. The group is banned from using a downtown parking lot, where they used to serve the food, because local businesses complained.

FNB’s history is also riddled with arrests and disputes, for sharing their food for free.

If you’d like to get involved with FNB, go to the Olympia Timberland Library (313 8th Ave Se, Olympia, WA 98501) any Saturday at 4:30 for more info.