Food Not Bombs began in Boston. There, forty years ago, Keith McHenry and seven of his friends donned military uniforms and held a bake sale in front of the local nuclear power plant’s headquarters. They told passersby that they were going to use the proceeds to buy a bomber as a theatrical protest against nuclear energy and military spending. 

Not wanting to waste their copious leftovers, the octet held a shared meal downtown the next day, giving away food to the local houseless population.        

Photo courtesy of Keith McHenry.

“We had such a blast doing it,” McHenry said. “It was so inspiring that the eight of us decided to quit our jobs and do nothing but collect food, take it to housing projects, and do street theater with vegan meals on the streets.” 

Food Not Bombs has expanded across the globe. Their website lists at least 500 active chapters in over 60 countries spanning all seven continents, with the organization believing that number to potentially tip over 1,000 since numerous chapters have not yet been officially listed or have asked to not be publicly listed.  

Each chapter is autonomous from one another and operates itself through a consensus process, heavily relying on the local community where each collective is based.     

Through anarchist principles of direct action, mutual aid, and volunteerism, all chapters share free vegan meals to the hungry to protest against the same issues that McHenry and his co-founders did on that cold night in downtown Boston: war, poverty, environmental destruction, and the way the public views houseless individuals.   

A long way from Boston,  McHenry has found himself on the other side of the country, where he continues to run the Santa Cruz chapter of Food Not Bombs. 

Here, volunteers source some of their produce from food banks, like Second Harvest and local farmer’s markets. But most of their food comes from local grocery stores. At the end of each day, Food Not Bombs volunteers ask the stores if they can claim any unsold produce, and often get it. 

Raw fruits and vegetables are then transformed into hefty servings of rice and beans, salads, lentil soups, and vegetable stews — all vegan and vegetarian. Volunteers distribute at the corner of Laurel and Front Street, ready to share with anyone who gets in line.   

Photo courtesy of Keith McHenry.

Despite their work in mutual aid and food distribution, tensions between Food Not Bombs and city management are nothing new. 

For Santa Cruz city manager Martín Bernal, disputes with Food Not Bombs have been a recurring theme in his 23-year tenure in city management. 

According to Bernal, there have been issues between the city and Food Not Bombs regarding aggressive behaviors around the premises, garbage and debris accumulation, creation of campsites, along with urination and sanitation, which lead to complaints from neighbors and passersby. 

Photo courtesy of Keith McHenry.

“There’s no issue or concern with respect to their purpose. It’s just the activities and the impacts that happen around where they function is the problem,” Bernal said.  

With the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Food Not Bombs expanded its meal services from weekends only to seven days a week. But this move has put the organization at odds with local law enforcement.

“There was no social distancing among participants. Some people shared cigarettes. Other people did not sanitize their hands,” wrote Santa Cruz Chief of Police Andrew Mills in a public blog in March. “Mass gatherings such as this cannot continue as it puts all Santa Cruzan’s at risk. […] Gathering in large groups is reckless, irresponsible, and is a crime we enforce.”

But Emma Perry, a fifth-year community studies major at UC Santa Cruz and Food Not Bombs volunteer said that in the months since, the organization has been diligent in its implementation of local and federal health guidelines, including wearing masks and social distancing. She said trying to enforce these guidelines is difficult, though, as numerous volunteers are houseless themselves and some patrons come under the influence.

“It’s not just about them getting food, it’s about us staying open and being able to do this,” Perry said. “Without people following these regulations they would just shut us down, and we don’t want the health department to get involved in anything like that because that would just take a lot away from people that really need it.” 

Disputes like these aren’t foreign to Food Not Bombs. In 1988, while serving food to the houseless in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, riot police arrested McHenry and eight others for doing so without a permit

In the thirty years since, Food Not Bombs chapters across the country have been the target of arrests and investigations from the FBI, and according to the Los Angeles Times, have been labeled by the FBI as an organization “that people intent on terrorism might associate with” due to its ties to anarchism.

To McHenry, Food Not Bombs’ disputes with local authorities only show the failures of current figures in political and economic power in helping those who need it the most. 

“The fact that people can see that there are a lot of people that come to eat with us every single day, what that indicates is that the city is actually not providing for everybody that needs free food,” McHenry said. “They would rather [have] their tax money go to the promotion of large luxury condominium developments in town and things that wealthy people need.”  

Elizabeth Smith, communications manager of the city department, doesn’t disagree with what Food Not Bombs is trying to do but states that city oversight of Food Not Bombs has been a balancing act between community safety and providing mutual aid.  

Photo courtesy of Keith McHenry.

“We want to help people here at the city and it just can’t come at the expense of other constituents,” Smith said. “And I think that’s the balance that we’re constantly trying to make with Food Not Bombs. How do you let them do their good work, but also how do you reduce the impacts on that?”

To Perry, houselessness is a major issue in Santa Cruz, and anybody new to the city must be cognizant of it. She also emphasizes that in acknowledging this issue, she doesn’t believe that the people themselves are the problem.  

“What I want people to understand is that there is a large homeless population in Santa Cruz, but the homeless people here are some of the warmest people that I’ve ever met,” Perry said. “I created really great relationships with the homeless people and just kind of removed that stigma around them, because for a lot of people that’s just the way that they want to live their life and they’re happy, and they’re peaceful, and they’re really kind.”

Food Not Bombs serves food Monday through Friday at 1 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 4 p.m at the parking lot at the corner of Front and Laurel.