Scarcity Is Not an Excuse: Food Access in the Lower East Side

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a series on the culture of Tompkins Square Park.

Every Sunday, even when the chilling wind is unbearably sharp, the Lower East Side’s Food not Bombs chapter serves free food between the hours of 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. in Tompkins Square Park. This is where I met Chris and the other energetic members (seen in the above picture). The other members unanimously assured me that Chris would be more than happy to answer any questions I had—and he was. In fact, he was enthusiastic, heated and spoke so fast that my hand cramped trying to keep up. He provided much needed insight into understanding Food not Bombs as a social movement, but first a little background information:

In 1980, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a member of an anti-nuclear group, Brian Feigenbaum, was arrested at a protest to stop the building of a nuclear station in New Hampshire. To raise money for his legal representation, the other members of his group sold food in Harvard Square. The activists also took the opportunity to inform consumers of their bake sale about the dangers of nuclear power. This is where Food not Bombs originated and got their name (Documenting 30 Years of Food not Bombs).

Food not Bombs has a twinge of socialist and anarchist tendencies. “Socialism”, a word that has been stigmatized in the United States, is often used to criticize liberals as well as the President of the United States. One aspect of socialism emphasizes that with “the natural and technical resources of the world held in common and controlled democratically, the sole object of production would be to meet human needs” (Word Socialist Movement). According to Merriam-Webster, “Anarchism” is a “political theory holding all forms of government authority to be unnecessary and undesirable and advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups”. “Human needs” and “voluntary cooperation are the driving forces behind the Food not Bombs organization. All over the world, Food not Bombs is making steady progress to “pick up the slack where the government falls short.”

Food not Bombs is a movement compiled of numerous decentralized chapters that share the same general goal. They promote anti-violence, community, and the well-being of the earth and its inhabitants by serving food in public places and at various protests. Each chapter makes its own decisions and each group’s members have an equal part in decision making. The volunteers strive to be completely democratic and avoid having a leader, a horizontal organizing structure. They collect food from restaurants, grocery stores and bakeries that would have otherwise been discarded and create hot vegan and vegetarian meals; the Lower East Chapter gets most of their food donations from the Perelandra Natural Food Center in Brooklyn and their baked goods from Baby Cakes. There are no qualifications to snag a taste; guests don’t have to be homeless or struggling—just hungry. The individual chapters strive to ensure that economic status doesn’t determine whether or not people eat (The Food not Bombs Movement).

However, like many conservatively inclined Americans are wary the ideals of  socialists, Food not Bombs has a history dealing with resistance. Particularly in San Francisco, Seattle and Orlando there has been conflict between the government and the volunteers of Food not Bombs, resulting in hundreds of arrests. Often, according to the Food not Bombs movement, the volunteers are arrested for trespassing and feeding the homeless without a permit or license . The volunteers have been accused of having ulterior motives and even have been called “food terrorists” by Orlando, Florida’s mayor Buddy Dyer (Donohoe). The local government often tries to compromise with Food not Bombs by giving them designated times and places to serve. The chapters often refuse and retort with frustration because they are trying to change society, not become a charity. Conforming to protocol would contradict their mission .

I stopped by Tompkins Square Park, New York, last Sunday, to see the Lower East Side’s chapter in person. Although they had just ran out of food and were packing up, I was able to walk back to The Catholic Worker’s kitchen with them and get a better understanding of what makes Food not Bombs so unique.

The Catholic Worker was originally a newspaper that promoted Catholic ideals and social justice. One of the founders, Dorothy Day, used to live above the kitchen in which Food not Bombs prepares meals. Day was anti-war activist and a pro womens rights activist and she was even arrested on several occasions during protests (Forrest). It only seems right that Food not Bombs and the Catholic Worker crossed paths in their mutual desire for social justice. All the food served in Tompkins Square Park is prepared at the Catholic Worker and then brought to the park.

One of the volunteers, Chris, an Anarcho-pacifist who works on Wall Street has been a regular volunteer since January 2010. He explains that every chapter is different because it is not about protocol, but rather centered on individuals. Much like a TV show with a large cast, each Sunday features a different combination of characters from a larger pool of volunteers. Along with these changing characters, there is also an ebb and flow of activist concerns. When Chris started with Food not Bombs, there was a strong animal rights interest among the volunteers in the Lower East Side chapter. As of now, the theme is closer to that of the Occupy Movement.

The chapters are so unique because the activism side of Food not Bombs is entirely reliant on the personal passions of the volunteers, or affinities. Each chapter decides independently which protests they want to attend. Through Food not Bombs, Chris was able to meet many other activists that share his passion for the Occupy Movement. In fact,  Chris was at Occupy with other members of Food not Bombs from day one, September 17, 2011. They served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the protesters. While being a member of the Wall Street work force and being involved in the Occupy Movement seems contradictory, Chris explains that in addition to needing a job, he is constantly driven to see the system change. Throughout our interview, Chris belabors the point that as Americans, we waste absurd amounts of food each day. Scarcity is not the reason that we have hungry people in our country. Capitalism is the problem. “Our governments’ priorities are skewed. They are stealing food from the mouths of babes” argues Chris.

Food not Bombs is people helping people and hoping to change the system to fill basic human needs. When I asked the Lower East Side’s chapter about the people they serve, they group livened and began reminiscing about people they fondly referred to as “the mandarins” and “the weather woman”. The group seems happy and motivated. They proudly say that their chapter is “nerdier than most”. But when I asked them if they had a message that they wanted to convey to the public, the conversation quickly switched back to activism. Quickly, but not without interjection and modification, the Lower East Side’s chapter developed the motto,“smash the state, overthrow Capitalism, but don’t kill anyone. Anarchism is about building things up after flushing out the shit that’s still clinging”.

“Anarchism.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/anarchism>.

“DOCUMENTING 30 YEARS OF FOOD NOT BOMBS.” DOCUMENTING 30 YEARS OF    FOOD NOT BOMBS. Food Not Bombs, n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.          <http://www.foodnotbombs.net/z_30th_anniversary_1.html>.

Donohoe, Kevin S. “Food Not Bombs Members Arrested for Feeding the Hungry.”The Nation.   N.p., 27 June 2011. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.

Forest, Jim. “Servant of God Dorothy Day.” Catholic Worker Movement – DorothyDay. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/ddbiographytext.cfm?Number=72>.”THE FOOD NOT BOMBS MOVEMENT.” THE FOOD NOT BOMBS MOVEMENT. N.p., n.d.        Web. 18 Oct. 2014. <http://www.foodnotbombs.net/index.shtml>.

“What Is Socialism?” World Socialist Movement. Creative Commons, 2014. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.          <http://www.worldsocialism.org/english/what-socialism>.

 

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