Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Food Not Bombs (FNB) only provided meals to the houseless community on weekends. Since Santa Cruz’s shelter in place order began on March 17, FNB has served about 100 houseless individuals for over 50 consecutive days. 

“The thing that’s very impressive is the amount of support,” said FNB co-founder Keith McHenry. “We have people coming to donate clothing and masks. People drive by and give us donations of money and we’ve had dozens and dozens of letters sent to the city council in our support.” 

The Santa Cruz City Council gathered via Zoom on April 28 to discuss 20 items on their meeting agenda, one of which, item 17, was directly tied to FNB. Item 17 mounted mass attention from the public with dozens of emails sent to the City Council in support of the organization. 

The item was a proposal to extend the current emergency order issued by City Manager Martin Bernal for 60 more days with six additions. The fourth addition called for the establishment of basic safety rules and permit requirements for individuals and organizations providing outdoor food service. 

Currently, FNB is the only organization providing daily outdoor food service to the houseless community in Santa Cruz and does not have a permit. 

“We are still trying to find ways to provide food distribution to our community,” said Mayor Justin Cummings at the council meeting. “I don’t want it to seem like we’re picking on Food Not Bombs. What we’re trying to do is ensure that we are providing a space for them, and providing clear, sound regulations on how they can distribute food in ways that meet the guidelines of the public health officer. So that, not only will we be providing people with food, but it’s done in a way that’s sanitary and ensures we’re maximizing social distancing.” 

After discussion and public comment on the item, the council ratified all additions to the emergency order. Council member Sandy Brown advocated for FNB during the discussions.

“I just hope that we can remember that Food Not Bombs is providing survival gear and food to people who would not otherwise get it,” Brown said at the council meeting.

The ratification of the six additions serves as a formality and does not alter the way FNB operates. Council members said they will continue to work with FNB to find ways to meet social distancing and sanitation concerns, and FNB will continue to operate daily while a permit is assembled.

The battle over distribution permits is not a new one for FNB co-founder Keith McHenry. He said FNB has encountered similar situations in other cities like San Francisco, but at the end of the day he is more interested in serving those in need. 

“We shouldn’t have to ask the city and get permission from the city to fill the gaps that they are leaving,” McHenry said.

Over the past month, McHenry and Assistant City Manager Susie O’Hara discussed ways to procure a food distribution permit for FNB. McHenry requested the permit give FNB a concrete location on Front Street. McHenry said O’Hara did not approve the relocation, and FNB instead sent its own Memorandum of Understanding stating the organization will continue to operate as it sees fit.

“Food not bombs has been safely and successfully feeding people for nearly 40 years without a permit process across the globe,” said President of the Santa Cruz Chapter of the Homeless Union Alicia Kuhl in an email to the city council. “Please do not interfere with this process, especially during a global pandemic.”

FNB distributed food at the Santa Cruz Town Clock before the shelter in place order began, but after repeated notices from the Santa Cruz Police Department and City Manager Martin Bernal, the Town Clock was fenced off. Toward the end of March, FNB was forced to relocate to the Benchlands, a grass area by the Santa Cruz Courthouse on Water Street. 

Mud, flooding and lack of visibility made food distribution at the Benchlands difficult, McHenry said. He requested wooden platforms for FNB volunteers to place their tent and equipment during food distribution to avoid equipment damage and sanitation problems. After multiple recommendations for the platforms from FNB and the county Director of Environmental Health, Dr. Marilyn Underwood, the city complied. 

However, after a rainstorm hit Santa Cruz on April 4, McHenry and FNB volunteers found the wooden platform submerged in water along with tents ripped and covered in mud. 

Although not officially authorized by the city, FNB temporarily relocated to 24 River St. and now serves food on the corner of Laurel and Front Streets.

“The Homeless Union and Food Not Bombs have filled a gap, providing food, hygiene items, and other necessary services on a daily basis to vulnerable community members during this crisis, and in general,” said President of the Santa Cruz Chapter of the Homeless Union Alicia Kuhl. “We have been stepping up where the city and county have not.”

FNB serves food Monday through Friday starting at 1 p.m. and weekends starting at 4 p.m.