The first time I volunteered with the Santa Cruz chapter of Food Not Bombs three years ago, we scrutinized each piece of donated produce to make sure it was clean and unspoiled, before preparing all-vegan meals for the hungry. The amount of care put into the preparation and serving of food to those who needed it left me with the firm belief that community-based operations like these are absolutely essential to serve people who can’t access the resources they need. 

Food Not Bombs, a long-standing organization in the Santa Cruz community, has aimed for the past 40 years to address the unmet needs of the unhoused and other individuals experiencing food insecurity.

Food Not Bombs volunteers prepare food for distribution. Photo by Haneen Zain.

As of 2018, 10 percent of Santa Cruz’s residents are food insecure. Local news network Patch reports COVID-19 related economic effects like job loss could push that number up to 16 percent. Food insecurity in Santa Cruz exposes the failures of both city administration and the state government.

City officials have made it clear that Food Not Bombs is a crucial service, and fills gaps left by the city’s inability to effectively feed the houseless population. However, Food Not Bombs’ troubled relationship with city management points to the city’s actual lack of support towards unauthorized food distribution. 

When I worked with Food Not Bombs, we were always diligent with cleaning up any trash and excess food or supplies, because we knew if anything was left behind, city management could weaponize it as evidence that Food Not Bombs’ operations are a blight on the city. 

This past month, City on a Hill Press reported on Food Not Bombs’ recent notice to vacate their current location at Front and Laurel Streets. City spokesperson Elizabeth Smith said as soon as Food Not Bombs becomes a nuisance, it loses its positive impact on the community.

Instead of damning Food Not Bombs the moment problems arise, the city should work with them to ensure the needs of unhoused individuals are met safely. 

A new initiative is following Food Not Bombs’ lead, as community fridges run through the Instagram page @sccommunityfridge pop up across the city in response to growing hunger in Santa Cruz. When the community bands together to feed its own, their operations remain contentious due to possible safety violations. 

Photo taken by Lluvia Moreno.

The community fridges act as miniature sites of decommodification, operating under an ideology of mutual exchange based on trust, similarly to Food Not Bombs. The community fridge page asks donors to label and date perishable items, wear masks, avoid filling the fridge with a single kind of food, and to take donations to Food Not Bombs if the fridge is full. 

These sites aren’t just dumping grounds for excess food — they’re carefully curated and maintained.

Community fridges and Food Not Bombs also try to ensure people’s other needs are met, allocating essentials like sunscreen and underwear that are so often taken for granted. 

Due to their common goals of avoiding charity and distributing necessary items to the public, the community fridge page’s solidarity with Food Not Bombs positions them as a potential target of city management. Earlier this month, the city of Sacramento issued a citation for a fridge, describing it as dangerous and unsightly and claiming it was creating a neighborhood public nuisance. We can’t let the Santa Cruz fridges be subject to the same demonization. 

The fridges and Food Not Bombs exemplify what happens when community members see a need and work independently of city management to address it through direct mutual aid, instead of charity or political reform. The efforts of people setting up these fridges signal a mutual understanding that the more every individual is cared for, the better the community becomes. 

Mobilizing more people to support the fridges or get involved with Food Not Bombs and showing that the residents of Santa Cruz can work as a community to fulfill folks’ needs is a step on the path towards unity. The Instagram page has a guide on how to start a community fridge in your own neighborhood.

Everyone should be encouraged to participate in mutual aid tactics, such as stocking community fridges, collecting hygiene supplies, and ensuring other vital needs are met. It is not about the monetary amount, quantity, or amount of time that you are able to give, but the willingness to help each other however you can.