The volunteer organization Food Not Bombs just marked its 40th anniversary. The group collects vegan and vegetarian food from grocery stores that would otherwise be thrown out and shares it with those in need.
Keith McHenry was part of a group of activists living in Massachusetts when he co-founded the group. Now, he lives in Santa Cruz.
As Food Not Bombs celebrates this 40 year milestone, it now operates in over 65 countries. KAZU’s Erika Mahoney spoke with McHenry about the virtual celebration that brought people together from around the world.
Erika Mahoney (EM): Let's go back to 1980. Walk me through the beginning of the organization and explain the significance of the name.
Keith McHenry (KM): I was in my early 20s and my friends were doing a lot of protests against nuclear power and nuclear weapons. I was an art student and I worked at a grocery store and I was just appalled at the amount of produce I was throwing away. So I started taking it to the housing projects to give to the people down there. And one day I'm talking to the residents, we're discussing this brand new building across the street, and they say that's where they design nuclear weapons. And I was like, oh, that's crazy… you need food over here, but they've got all this money for nuclear weapons over there. And that's where the name Food Not Bombs came from. Then, we had started like doing street theater with the food. And we saw that really caught people's attention. And then we decided we would do a street theater outside the stockholders meeting of the Bank of Boston and we would dress up like hobos. It was just such an inspiring day that just changed my life. And the guys that were there said, you should do this everyday because there's no food for homeless people in Boston. We decided that night we would quit our jobs and do nothing but collect food, take it to housing projects and make meals that we'd share on the streets. And so that's what we did.
EM: Why do you focus on vegetarian and vegan food for distribution?
KM: I was vegan when we started Food Not Bombs, and that was the case for all eight of us. We thought, well, if we're going to be Food Not Bombs, and we're going to be against violence, we should also be against the violence towards animals and towards the environment and the earth. The other thing is, we were very poor. We had no money and we wanted to do this safely. The only way to really do that was to have the vegan diet and that way we wouldn't have to get special refrigeration units and heating tables and everything to safely feed lots and lots of people.
EM: So Food Not Bombs has gotten in trouble for distributing food to the homeless. Tell me about that.
KM: The original time we got arrested, and I was the first to be arrested, was at Golden Gate Park, August 15th of 1988. And nine of us were arrested that day. There was a photo that showed up the next morning in the San Francisco Chronicle. And that really encouraged people to join us the next Monday. So people like started writing us and leaving messages at our answering service that we had, which overwhelmed them, asking how they could start a Food Not Bombs chapter in their community. And so I had taken notes on how I started the second group in San Francisco, and I made a flier called Seven Steps to starting a Food Not Bombs. And I would mail that to you. By the next summer, there were groups in Prague, Czechoslovakia; Brixton in London; in Melbourne, Australia; Victoria, British Columbia; and also at Tompkins Square Park in New York City.
EM: What was the objection to feeding people?
KM: The objection is, and it's still to this day, a big, big issue, is that you see a large number of homeless people standing outside waiting in line to get food. And it highlights the failure of the local government to deal with a crisis that's at hand. (Click here to read a newspaper article published August 16, 1988.)
EM: In Santa Cruz, you work closely with homeless people. Homelessness is affecting all communities across California and the nation and the world. What's something you’d like to share about unhoused individuals that maybe people don't see?
KM: Rather than just looking down on people living outside, people should really realize that these are our neighbors, our family members, our friends. And they're really a victim of an economic and political system that has forced people onto the streets.
EM: What do you believe is the best way for our country to deal with hunger?
KM: I think that we need to get to a point where we realize that food and shelter and education and health care are rights, basic human rights. Those things are being withheld for profit and that we need to turn around. And that's I think where Food Not Bombs has been most effective, is in developing this idea that, it is one of our slogans, is "food's a right, not a privilege."
EM: Do you have a favorite memory over your time with Food Not Bombs?
KM: Here... this is an interesting one. It was a snowy day in Boston and I was trying to deliver to one of the shelters, the food, and they had not come back. I was just sitting there with our van open and I had buckets of tofu that were in ice that were part of what I was going to donate. And this woman, African-American woman, just silently walks up to the van and she points to the bucket of tofu and I say, well it's not cooked. You know, it's frozen. She just didn't say a word and insisted that I hand her the eight ounces of tofu, you know, a little block of tofu. So I hand it to her and before long, my van is surrounded by people eating frozen tofu. They were so hungry. So I think that was one of the most shocking things I've heard. But I could tell you many, many amazing stories about Food Not Bombs. And, you know, in 40 years, it's just, it's magical, the amount of things that have happened.
Keith McHenry co-founded Food Not Bombs, which just marked its 40th anniversary. McHenry’s weekly food distributions in Santa Cruz have recently turned into daily ones due to the coronavirus pandemic.