APRIL 4TH DAY OF HUNGER
| Keith McHenry |
“I find no other solution, now, than a dignified end before I start searching through the trash for food.” Dimitris Christoulas, 4 April 2012, Athens, Greece
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Martin Luther King, Jr. 4 April 1967
I picked up the phone as I waited for my 4th April flight from Chicago to San Francisco. It was Nick Cooper, a Food Not Bombs volunteer, calling with news from Houston. “We lost. City council voted to restrict our meals.” Houston joins a growing list of cities banning or restricting the sharing of food outside. These laws will force people to seek food from the garbage.
Then came the news that retired pharmacist Dimitris Christoulas shot himself in the head outside the Greek parliament at Syntagma Square, Athens. His suicide was a protest against the growing sense of despair felt by millions, as wealthy corporate rulers confiscate more riches from their workers. Dimitris left a note that should be etched into the hearts of those leaders cruel enough to vote for laws against sharing meals with the hungry in public: “I find no other solution, now, than a dignified end before I start searching through the trash for food.”
Dimitris Christoulas ended his life in protest on 4th April. His death is a bookend to that of Tunisian produce vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in protest of those same policies sparking the Arab Spring and the wave of occupations and uprisings that continue to this day.
Across the USA, a national network of community policing groups are working as the eyes and ears of the police in a campaign to drive the homeless and hungry out of sight and out of the national debate. The policies adopted in Houston and other communities like Sanford, Florida, that ban the sharing of food from the public started under President Reagan, have become increasingly harsh under Obama. Some speculate that the visibility of so many people needing help is disrupting the Democratic Party’s claim that they are responsible for improving the economy. Others have told me that they think the new wave of laws against sharing food with the hungry outside are designed to stop the kitchens at occupations. There is evidence to support both claims.
It appeared in early January that a national coordinated campaign to hide the hungry had started in earnest. People were reporting that their local police had stopped them from handing out food to the homeless. The officers would often claim that feeding the hungry was illegal, suggesting that anyone providing food could be jailed and fined. I started receiving emails and calls about petitions to have these policies changed. On 2oth January I received an email from Kathy Mitro calling on the Speaker of the House to change the laws that criminalize individuals feeding hungry individuals. A day before I was asked to sign Kathy’s online petition, I received a call from Monique of VegFund, followed by her email saying they were having problems distributing even prepackaged food on the sidewalk.
Kathy soon found another petition posted by Amanda Foreman-Stromquist to “The City of Dallas: Stop threatening people for feeding the homeless.” Amanda wrote, “My sister’s brother-in-law bought a sandwich for a homeless man and was told if it happens again he would be fined $150 per person and jailed for a minimum of 24 hours. He wasn’t even allowed to give him the sandwich he had just bought for him. Why is feeding someone less fortunate against a city ordinance? This has to be stopped.” Another petition, “Allow Food Not Bombs Myrtle Beach to Feed the Hungry,” was followed by news that the City of Santa Monica was about to pass a law requiring Food Not Bombs to request a permit each week to share meals downtown. Philadelphia Food Not Bombs also found themselves struggling to stop a law banning their meals.
A few days later Nick called from Houston. He woke to read a commentary in the 2nd March Houston Chronicle: “Rules needed to protect homeless, property owners.” The article claimed that groups shouldn’t provide meals to the hungry outside. It was signed by Stephen Williams, Director, Houston Department of Health and Human Services and chair of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County; Rudy Rasmus, pastor, St. John’s Downtown; Hank Rush, president and CEO, Star of Hope Mission; and Bob Eury, executive director, Downtown District.
On 14th March 2012 the city of Philadelphia announced that it would attempt to stop people from sharing food with the hungry outside. While local governments are claiming they are seeking to protect the poor from unsafe food, they are not able to point to one case where someone was made ill. Many of those dependent on these meals will be forced to eat out of the garbage if the city is able to close these meals. Food Not Bombs provides some of the healthiest meals shared with the hungry. The food is often organic and is always low in salt, sugar and fats. Isaiah Thompson writes in his article Hunger Games, ‘The Board of Health hasn’t mentioned a single instance of food borne illness in those who receive meals from these volunteers. The mayor has characterized his move as “increasing the health, safety, dignity and support for those vulnerable individuals” who, “regardless of their station in life, should be able to sit down at a table to a meal — inside”.’
Many in the City of Brotherly Love are opposed to all laws restricting the sharing of meals in public. Caroline Steinberg of the North Philly chapter of Food Not Bombs pointed out at a recent public hearing that it was crazy for a city suffering extreme budget cuts to stop programs that “doesn’t cost [the city] a dime.” Yet, city governments have been asking their local government-funded homeless service agencies to sign on to a commentary against sharing food outdoors. Philadelphia asked service providers like Mary Scullion, Executive Director of the cities’ Project H.O.M.E, to express support for the ban on outdoor food sharing. In 1988, Reverend Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial Church stood next to the mayor of San Francisco and spoke out against the sharing of meals to the hungry outside in city parks. He held his annual chicken dinner at the Pan Handle Park a few weeks after telling the media it was disrespectful to feed the hungry in parks. Is it only a matter of time before we see announcements for an outdoor meal sponsored by Project H.O.M.E.? Their meal might not be in the newly gentrified area of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway where the new Barnes Museum is set to open on 19 May 2012. Even Project H.O.M.E.’s Sister Mary Scullion, who stood next to the mayor when he announced the policy, told City Paper, “Of course this is totally about the Barnes”.
I was among 24 people arrested in Orlando, Florida, in June 2011 for sharing meals with more than 24 people, which violates Orlando’s large group feeding law. I was held for 17 days on my second arrest and I fined $1,000 for my efforts. Many more people may be arrested and fined for helping the hungry and seeking to find long-term solutions to America’s poverty unless the public is able to pressure city governments into abandoning their outdoor meal suppression efforts.
The Orlando Sentinel published a commentary, “Beyond Public Park Feedings”, on 19 June 2011 expressing the same argument made in the Houston Chronicle op-ed from March. It claimed that “meal service is available to anyone in the community in need of food”, but from experience this didn’t ring true. A few days before this article was published a young man who hadn’t eaten in five days rushed up to the end of the line of those waiting to eat at Food Not Bombs at Lake Eola. He explained that he was new to Orlando and by the time he made it to the other meal programs they had already run out of food. We weren’t the only organization with direct experience showing that not everyone had access to food. Statistics taken from the website foodbankcentralflorida.org paints this picture:
- 42% of the soup kitchens reported that 50 or more additional meals are needed weekly. This represents a 100% increase from 2006.
- For shelters, this increase is 400%.
- 76.1% of the pantries, 70% of the kitchens and 48.8% of the shelters indicate that they serve more clients now than they did in 2006.
- 20.7% of the pantries, 10.1% of the kitchens and 33.0% of the shelters responded that they turned away clients during the past year.
- 47% of the members of households served by Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida are children. This number is up nearly 100% from 2006.
The Sentinel commentary went on to say meal service is not just for residents of homeless shelters and “[that] is why we firmly believe that feeding in public places, such as Lake Eola, is a duplication of services, services that are available just blocks from Lake Eola.”
Even if the soup kitchens and shelters included enough food for everyone that arrived to eat, Food Not Bombs still is not a “duplication of services”. By organizing to change society so no one needs to stand in line to eat at a food program, Food Not Bombs is really addressing the much larger issues that other services only claim to address. Unlike the programs that signed the commentary saying that “solving homelessness involves more than a warm meal and a place to sleep”, Food Not Bombs is actually working to end the policies that divert nearly half of our tax dollars from education and universal healthcare and other social services to the military. Remaining quiet on this issue is not a real solution, and supporting local laws designed to silence this debate is one sure way to increase the numbers of people forced to eat at soup kitchens.
The Orlando agencies receiving government funding claimed that “such public feedings may well contribute to homelessness and actually keep the homeless from the essential services necessary to get back on the road to self-sufficiency. One of the vital keys to assisting these men, women and families is providing comprehensive case-management services. This includes access to the tools needed to attain independence, truly giving them a ‘hand up’ to a better life.” The ‘vital keys’ to ‘attain independence’ can be found by understanding that we don’t need a ‘hand up to a better life’, but instead we need to change the economic and political system. In the short run, by inviting those who need to eat at Food Not Bombs to participate in the decision-making process of our movement, by taking their ideas and desires seriously, and by realizing that they already have the tools they need to attain independence is a much more dignified and realistic solution to their condition than the path to a low-wage job with a transnational corporation.
The Orlando Sentinel noted that the column “Beyond Public Park Feedings” was a collaboration of Renee Alivento, president, Christian Service Center for Central Florida; Allen Harden, president/CEO, Orlando Union Rescue Mission; Maj. Andrew Kelly, area commander, The Salvation Army, Orlando Metropolitan Area Command; Ray Larsen, executive director, Central Florida Commission on Homelessness; and Brent A. Trotter, president/CEO, Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida. What the Orlando Sentinel did not mention was that the commentary was part of a well-financed and detailed campaign designed to blame the victims of capitalism and reduce pressure to fund a world where everyone has the food, housing, education, healthcare and dignity that is their right. After all, those of us living in poverty are the ones who have toiled to build our society.
Some cities have a gentler path towards banning people from providing food in public: by “offering” permits. Permits that they intend to withhold in the future. Houston is trying this tactic today, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this. In 1988, the city of San Francisco gave Food Not Bombs a permit to share our food and literature behind a tall stand of bushes in Golden Gate Park. Not one person passed by our table in twelve months who was not hungry and seeking a meal. The hungry already understand what we are talking about and know that there are thousands of people that need to eat at soup kitchens.
The impact of the Food Not Bombs project is based on the concept that a diversity of people will pass by our table, see our banner saying ‘Food Not Bombs’ and stop to enjoy our food, read some of our flyers and engage in conversation with people they may rarely have had a chance to know otherwise. The impact of this experience will be strong, deep and personal. People who might not have thought about why we live in a world of abundance yet so many live without will be moved to seek change. And those who have walked up to our table after seeing our banner already believing that no one would have to eat at a soup kitchen if money was diverted from military spending to education, healthcare and other social services will find they are not alone.
The effectiveness of our strategy concerns the authorities. In the fall of 2009, two U.S. State Department officials in a lecture at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy compared Al-Qaeda and the “group sharing free vegan meals on the streets”, claiming that the vegans were more dangerous. They explained that after 30 years of sharing meals and ideas with the public, our message was resonating and could cause the public to insist that their resources be diverted from the military to programs that would build real security through domestic spending. The authorities have been able to minimize our impact by discouraging our volunteers from bringing literature and a banner to the meals. Worried about being arrested, our volunteers will comply and before long people believe the meal they are walking past has been organized by a local church. The public no longer questions that our resources are being diverted from domestic programs towards the military and corporate interests.
The programs in Dallas, New York, Philadelphia, Houston and other cities might seem innocent enough: bring the homeless inside for a meal — but really the plan is to hide the hungry so housed taxpayers won’t see them. They pretend to be concerned about the safety of organic vegan meals shared outside, but really the focus is to reduce pressure to change society so that the banks, corporations and their political supporters can claim the economic system works and no one needs to worry about poverty. Keep on spending billions of the military and drive the victims of the economic crisis out of sight.
The outdoor meals also provide other benefits that indoor food programs don’t offer. We provide meals to many people that have been banned from other meals. In some areas like Florida you must show a valid Florida ID to eat at many indoor soup kitchens. Many mothers tell us they prefer to eat outside because the noise and turmoil at indoor programs frightens their children. The parks and plazas are a safer location for many. Many are introduced to the other programs through the groups sharing food outside since the first place a person is likely to visit is a group providing food in public. Yet for me the most important reason to share meals outside is to encourage as many people as possible to help change society so one is forced to stand in line to eat at a soup kitchen and everyone has a place to sleep with dignity. One in two Americans is struggling to survive. That is a crime when billions is spent on war.
My friends and I are calling for an end to all laws restricting acts of compassion. Our campaign started on Sunday, 1st April 2012 when volunteers were asked to organize celebrations in support of our right to share food. We will need your participation if cities start to make arrests. You don’t have to risk arrest yourself. We need cooks and support people. Consider organizing a local affinity group of your friends and family to provide a foundation of support. Print out our “Bill of Rights to recognize that sharing food with the hungry is an unregulated act of kindness.” Ask your community to sign the petition and introduce it to your local officials. Build support in your community for an end to all laws restricting the sharing of food. You are encouraged to organize a celebration and share free food to the hungry in your community on Friday, 1 June. Please endorse our campaign and email the details of your celebration to email@example.com
Keith McHenry is an artist and author who helped start Food Not Bombs in Massachusetts in 1980. He has recovered, cooked and shared food with the hungry for over 30 years. He has been arrested for his involvement with Food Not Bombs, spending over 500 nights in jail and at one point faced life in prison. He has traveled all over the world speaking at colleges, books stores and cafes while sharing free vegan meals with many of the over 1,000 Food Not Bombs groups active around the world. When he isn’t on the road Keith lives in Taos, New Mexico, tending to his garden, writing, painting and helping coordinate logistics for the Food Not Bombs movement.
Hungry for Peace – the new book can help you start a Food Not Bombs group in your community.