Guide to Richmond Food Not Bombs

6 Mar

This is a guide to Richmond Food Not Bombs that I have been working on for a while. I want to eventually have print copies that we can give to new folks so they can get a feel for what we do and why (and how). Any edits, criticisms or additions are welcome.

Welcome to Richmond Food Not Bombs!

This zine is meant to give you more information about Food Not Bombs so you can have many of your questions, including the ones you didn’t know you had, answered. If you have any ideas, suggestions, or questions not included in this zine, feel free to bring them up to folks at Food Not Bombs- we are always excited to challenge each other and grow as a community.

Richmond, Virginia Food Not Bombs

Started mainly as a political statement, Food Not Bombs, was born in 1980. The movement’s founding members served free food to the homeless outside of a stockholders’ meeting of the First National Bank in Boston. A bank which “red-lined” many poverty-stricken districts in the city while it simultaneously funded much of New England’s weapons industry. The group’s message was simple: “Less money should be spent on destructive military equipment while much of our nation’s population lives in poverty”. This first Food Not Bombs action made a strong political statement, while at the same time providing a simple and practical service to those in need. Now, 30 years later, groups all over the world operate with the same simple humanitarian cause using the name Food Not Bombs.

Food Not Bombs has been a Richmond organization since 1994. For over 16 years the Richmond group has served a weekly meal, only missing 2 servings in its history. The group was founded by activists, and while the membership has changed, there are still connections between the original members and todays activists. Not only that, but the spirit of the group remains the same.

What Does Food Not Bombs Do?

Like any major city in our country, Richmond has a growing number of citizens without homes or the means to acquire healthy food. Food Not Bombs Richmond serves a free, hot, vegan meal in Monroe Park, near the intersection of Main and Belvidere Streets. Close to 200 people eat dinner with us every Sunday, including families. Rice, vegetable stir fry, salad, fruit, bread, and drinks are typically prepared. After the meal, free groceries are made available. We also distribute baked goods and produce to other community organizations. Demonstrations and community events such as Really Really Free Markets, REPHRAME Meetings, the May Day Parade and more are other opportunities for Food Not Bombs to provide a meal while increasing our visibility and developing solidarity with local activists.

Food Not Bombs is an entirely not- for- profit group of individuals. Most of our pool of resources is provided by the kind donations of several Richmond businesses. Each week these generous donors set aside products which are still viable and edible but are for some reason unsellable and would otherwise be thrown away (i.e. produce which is not ‘pretty’ enough to sell, items which have just passed their ‘sell by’ date, etc.) Any additional supplies that we require are purchased with money raised from benefit concerts or from members’ own pockets. We are not affiliated with nor financially supported by any organization, religious, political, or otherwise, and we rely entirely upon donations and volunteers to survive.

Why Is The Food Vegan?
Food Not Bombs serves vegan food for numerous reasons. Because we deal with donated food, it is much easier and safer to avoid meat and dairy products which spoil quickly and easily. Socioeconomically, a vegetarian or vegan menu reinforces our cause of reducing waste. It takes 16 pounds of grain to produce a single pound of meat; making meat an extremely economically costly and environmentally wasteful food. Many of those who eat with us each week are themselves vegetarian or vegan. Were we to serve meat and dairy, we would be excluding these community members from our table, so we choose to make the meal as accessible as possible. A majority of the members of Richmond Food Not Bombs are themselves vegetarian or vegan and prefer not to serve meat and dairy for their own reasons, whether they be ethical or health related. All of these choices, alone or in combination with each other, underlie our choice of serving a vegan meal.

Food Not Bombs is always looking for new resources and new volunteers. We love meeting new individuals to help us collect food, cook, serve, and clean up! We spend about 6 or 7 hours every Sunday in order to provide a single meal. But no one has to come for the whole time- if you can spare a few hours on Sundays, to help with any aspect, but especially clean up, we would love your help. Give us a call or just stop by Monroe Park at 4:00 on a Sunday and introduce yourself. We are also always looking for new sources of donated food and food serving supplies. We are in constant need of produce, canned foods, spices, drinks and drink mixes, paper cups, paper plates, plastic silverware and condiments. If you are involved with a business which would be interested in becoming a Food Not Bombs donor, please contact us. Without the generous donations of Richmond Businesses we would not be able to function. Food Not Bombs is run by everyday people who want to make a difference. Every person’s efforts are important to us, no matter how small. If you would like to make a difference by helping turn waste into a valuable food source please contact us. Thanks!

Food is a right, not a privilege!!!

Contact information:
Location for Cooking and for dropping off donations:
“The Wingnut” 2005 Barton Avenue, Richmond, VA 23222
– the phone at the Wingnut is 804 303 5449, so feel free to call if you have any worries or concerns.

Food Not Bombs
P.O. Box 6025
Richmond, Va 23220

(804) 300 0023

The name Food Not Bombs states our most fundamental principle: society needs to promote life, not death. Our society condones and even promotes violence and domination. This affects us in our everyday lives through the constant threat of violent crime, domestic violence, police repression and the threat of total annihilation from nuclear war. Such constant exposure to violence, including the threat thereof, leads many people to hopelessness and low self esteem. Authority and power is derived from the threat and use of violence. Globally, we continue to spend more time and resources developing, using, and threatening to use weapons of massive human and planetary destruction than on nurturing and celebrating life.
Poverty is violence. One expression of the violence of poverty is hunger. Millions of Americans, almost half children, go hungry every day and childhood malnutrition contributes heavily to infant mortality

Thats some of the basic ideas around the Richmond Food Not Bombs group. Here are some more specifics that might help you get acquainted with the process we go through every week to prepare a meal. Many of our volunteers have no cooking experience, there is no need to feel intimidated, we are all here to learn together.
We get together on Sundays, around noon, at the Wingnut. From there we start to set up and figure out what we might make that day.

Richmond Food Not Bombs Checklists/ Ideas about what the heck is going on


Gather all of the food from various basements/ rooms/ cars/ etc.
Bring up 2 tables from the basement and set them up in big room
Bring up colanders, cutting boards, and knives from the basement
Assess what you have and what you need in terms of food- dig through boxes, check the pantry etc.
Come to a consensus about what dishes will be prepared from the food you have
– Keep in mind how long things will need to cook and issues like limited stove top and oven space
-Write the menu on the white board in the room, so everyone can remember what we have planned
Depending on how crowded etc. it is, get folks to bottomline particular dishes, to make sure for instance, everything that needs to be done for a stirfry is done- from washing the vegetable to thawing tofu to cooking it
Figure out what, if anything you need from the store- i.e. ice, plates, garlic, sugar, rice etc. (Ideally this happens before a Sunday, but we aren’t perfect)
Get money or the FNB Card, and have someone go to the store
Remember to wash produce before cutting it!!!
If there is produce that you wouldn’t eat, don’t serve it! Use your judgment and don’t be afraid to ask if you aren’t sure.
Generally speaking, you want to cut produce so it is ‘bite’ size.
Cut up produce as needed for dishes- usually you have to figure out an order to do this in, based on what needs cooking- for instance typically the vegetables for the entree will be cut first, things like a salad, fruit salad, and bread can be prepared later in the day. Except lately, we have had the problem of finishing the hot food too quickly, so we have started doing the fruit salad and salad first so the hot food is still hot when we get to the park. Just an issue to keep in mind.
(Most weeks) Cook rice in rice maker
Get clean totes to put finished products in
Put all the food scraps into boxes for composting

Ideas for food
-We usually have some variation of the following. Don’t be afraid to be creative, just keep in mind making something that 150 people will want to eat:
White Rice
Vegetable Stir Fry with Tofu, or other hot vegetable entree
Mashed Potatoes
Pasta with veggies (usually happens when we are short on food)
Fruit Salad
Salad Salad
Apple Crisp
Corn on the cob
Bannana Bread or Pudding
Green Bean Casserole
Sliced Bread
Sweets box (cake or muffins etc.)
Gaspacho, Chili, or other soup

Keep in mind that we try to keep our food accessible to as many people as possible. So this can mean making sure we don’t make it too spicy, leave apples out of fruit salad cause folks without teeth have a hard time with apples, avoid using nuts in food (allergies) etc.

Bring to Park
3 water coolers- sometimes they will all have water, sometimes there will be citrus drink or coffee in one or 2 of them
3 long folding tables for serving the food and drinks
1 small card table for literature
Basket with serving utensils- tongs, big spoons, ladles
Paper plates
Plastic Forks
Plastic spoons
salt and pepper
hot sauce
milk/sugar if we have coffee
all the food you made- so a bunch of totes, buckets, RICE etc.
literature for literature table
food not bombs flags
Menu sign, and chalk
all of the give away food

At the Park, (corner of Main and Belvidere) we set up three tables for food and drinks. In front of the first table we put the Menu Sign with the days menu on it. The first table generally has the plates, Rice/Pasta, hot main meal dishes like mashed potatoes/green bean casserole etc. The second table tends to have the fruit salad, salad, bread, and any dessert item. The last table has the drinks, cups, forks, condiments, and condoms.
We need people to help serve each of the dishes. Since there are usually 2-3 dishes per table it makes sense to have 2-3 people at each table. If you are new, you might be more comfortable if you have a buddy with more experience at the same table as you. Folks in the park line up at the menu sign, and go to the tables in order. Ask folks if they want whatever it is you are serving. You have to be a little conscious of how much of your dish you have versus how many people want to eat, but generally speaking we try to be generous. And once the line has gone through people are welcome to come back for seconds.

Grocery give away can be a stressful part of Food Not Bombs. Unfortunately we live in a world where folks do not have equal access to food. So often people stress out over it, and have a tendency to get pushy during the grocery give away. We do the grocery give away after it looks like most people have finished their meal. Then we get a bunch of volunteers to distribute the food. We used to just put the boxes on the ground, but now we are trying handing the food out from the back of the truck. That seemed like it worked pretty well. Feel free to ask other Food Not Bombsers about this so you know what to expect.

After we serve the meal in the park, it is REALLY IMPORTANT that folks come back to the Wingnut to help clean up.

Clean Up
Make sure tables are wiped down
Return all 4 tables to the basement
Wash all cutting boards,
serving utensils,
woks, etc. used in the food preparation and serving process.
Dry all cutting boards, knives, colanders, serving utensils, pots, pans, woks etc. and return to the basement
Empty the totes, compost or give away the food
Wash out the totes
Wash out the water coolers and return to basement
Put rice maker back in basement
Wipe down kitchen counters
Wipe down stove
Flatten all cardboard boxes
Take cardboard to a recycling dumpster (firepit in backyard)
Consolidate all compost
Take compost to compost pile in backyard of Wingnut
Return literature, condoms, plastic silverware, plates, etc. to the basement, neatly.
Clear everything out of the living rooms
Sweep all the floors
Mop all the floors
Take out the trash
Double check that everything is spick and span please!
Tell your friends and family to come next week to help out!
Talk about who is doing the food pickups for the next week- make sure they are all covered.

Food Not Bombs
Written by Mo Karn as part of a larger history of radical activsm in Richmond, Virginia – direct comments and questions to: or PO Box 6025 Richmond, VA 23222

Food Not Bombs is a group that serves food for free to people who want to eat the food. Some tactics or approaches to creating new realities in the face of the oppressive capitalist system and state (as generally experienced in the United States of America) have had more success or at least more frequent and widespread use than others. Food Not Bombs is a widely used tactic. The Food Not Bombs movements will be explored here to show the roots and influences of FNB in Richmond.
The first incarnation of Food Not Bombs was in 1980 in Boston, with one particular group of activists (Butler and McHenry). The first serving of food was part of a street theater action. The story of the first incarnation of Food Not bombs are explained in an informational pamphlet created and distributed by the Richmond Food Not Bombs group. They explain:
Started mainly as a political statement, Food Not Bombs, was born in 1980. The movement’s founding members served free food to the homeless outside of a stockholder’s meeting of the First National Bank in Boston. A bank which “red-lined” many poverty-stricken districts in the city while it simultaneously funded much of New England’s weapons industry. The group’s message was simple: “Less money should be spent on destructive military equipment while much of our nation’s population lives in poverty.” This first Food Not Bombs action made a strong political statement while at the same time providing a simple and practical service to those in need. Now, 20 years later, groups all over the country operate with the same simple humanitarian cause using the name Food Not Bombs” (DOC F).

Their particular version of the Food Not Bombs story is important because it reveals the perspective on the national Food Not Bombs held by the local group. Some of the key concepts from this version are the free food, the political statement about the money spent on war that could be spent on helping the nation’s poor, providing a simple and practical service, and the humanitarian aspect of the cause. These, and other aspects of the group will be discussed in the text below. The serving of free food began as an addition to other political events going on. It was only gradually that the serving of free food itself became the political event. The goal of the original Food Not Bombs was political. However, it is also understood that over time the goal grew to include humanitarian motives.
The name of the group explains pretty explicitly the common message of the tactic. The message is that the state and society in general should spend their money, time, and effort on providing food, not on buying bombs and engaging in other war activities. It is a call to positive action for life, instead of negative action for death, according to Butler and McHenry. The message of Food Not Bombs can also be discovered by looking at “the three basic principles – Consensus, Non-Violence, and Vegetarianism” (CrimethInc. 249). These principles are perhaps not enough to explain how the group is a contemporary radical group; however that aspect will bediscussed below.
The basic process for Food Not Bombs groups is that they get food, cook the food, and serve the food publicly. In some instances the groups serve once a week, and in some places they serve every day. All of the details vary from group to group. It is worth looking at some of the basic details to the functioning of these groups, no matter their size. These details are explored below.
Where the food comes from is an important part of the group and its connection to the community. While this differs from group to group, and even changes over time within the same group, there are some common food sources that many groups end up using at one point or another. Food Not Bombs groups rarely pay for the food that they serve. Occasionally some part of the meal (like rice or pasta) will be bought, but largely the food is gathered for free. Donations typically are a source of some of the food served at FNB. The donations often come from grocery stores and bakeries. Even places like coffee shops with pastries will occasionally donate their goods. Donations will vary from produce, leftover cakes and sweets, bread, and even more obscure food items. The political climate of the area does have some influence on whether or not a group receives donations. If Food Not Bombs is not perceived as a legitimate program they may have trouble convincing stores to donate to them. Also, in many areas the groceries and bakeries have commitments to other organizations, such as churches and food banks. Often times, creating a letter head for a group, writing an official request, and talking to a manager is how Food Not Bombs gets donations. Once a place agrees to donate food, it is still up to the group to figure out how to make sure there is someone to pick up the donations at the proper time. A group must also consider where to properly store the food until they cook it.
Aside from direct donations, Food Not Bombs groups also get indirect donations through the food that is thrown into the garbage. Often termed dumpster diving, the practice of reclaiming still edible food items from the trash provides much of the food that some FNB groups use. Dumpster diving is the name given to the activity of digging through the trash in order to find something of value to you. People dumpster dive to find everything from food to furniture to clothing to evidence and information. There are a lot of amazing things in the trash. Dumpster diving is generally not viewed as a legitimate activity. In some places it is explicitly illegal, and in most places dumpster divers will face harassment if they are noticed. Dumpster diving is an option that is not really open for more official and structured organizations. The food is perceived as dirty and unhealthy in general. However, in reality there is a lot of edible food that is thrown into dumpsters in every town. Some of the best places are once again, grocery stores, health food stores, and bakeries. Food Not Bombs groups will use dumpstered food if they can not get enough in donations, or if the donations a certain week are skimpy. Some groups just really like using dumpstered food.
The politics behind dumpster diving are important. There are multiple motives behind dumpster diving. One of the least political motives is because there is no other option to be used as a resource for food. When a person feels like they are forced to dig through the trash the experience is not empowering. More political reasons for dumpster diving include valuing non-participation in the capitalist market. While the excess found in dumpsters would likely not exist if not for the capitalist system, currently utilizing these unprofitable resources is a way to survive without being a consumer. This could be seen as fitting in with some of the concepts of lifestyle anarchism, or dropping out from the system instead of participating and perpetuating it. Other people see dumpster diving as an environmental issue- it is unsustainable to let good food and other consumer items go to waste in landfills. Purchasing new items would just perpetuate the system that is destroying the environment. Some people intercept these items in the dumpster instead of purchasing new ones. The perspective promoted by Food Not bombs also meshes well with the practice of dumpster diving. Throwing away edible food while people only a couple blocks away are going hungry is outrageous. Food Not Bombs in general questions the values of a society that would spend money on bombs instead of feeding people. Questioning a society that throws food away instead of giving it out, that values profit over people, fits into the Food Not Bombs attitude.
When food, like rice or pasta, has to be purchased there is the issue of where those funds come from. Groups often have a can or a jar for donations. Many times participants in the cooking process will chip in for the food. Groups also fund raise in a variety of ways. Benefit concerts are one common and popular method used to raise money. This is usually not a big issue for groups- but particularly when a group is beginning and needs to purchase cooking utensils and basic ingredients such as spices, they do need a source of funding.
Aside from procuring the food, one of the more labor intensive aspects of FNB is the preparation of the food. This is the part of Food Not Bombs that requires the participation of more people. In many instances the process of cooking becomes a very social event. People gather, decide what they can cook with the available food, chop vegetables, mix things, cook and get the food ready for transport. Depending on the amount of people who generally come to eat the group will have to cook more food, and thus spend more time cooking. For people who participate in Food Not Bombs, the cooking of the food is the longest part.
Food Not Bombs groups also have to figure out where they are going to prepare and cook the food they have gathered. This issue becomes particularly significant if the group is cooking for a large amount of people. Access to larger facilities can then be important. Sometimes FNB groups cook out of the home or homes of members. The benefits of this are that the place is open to FNB, and people are welcome there. The downside is that it is a much less public space and can make it a bit more difficult for preparing and cooking the food to be a public community effort. This can also place undue stress on the individual whose home it is. Another option frequently used is cooking in the kitchen of a community center or church. This happens a lot, and has many benefits, as that space is usually larger than a personal kitchen, and is a more public, open, and well known space. Some of the potential downsides to this are that, as guests, a lot more pressure is placed on FNBers in terms of their behavior in that space. Not because FNBers are necessarily unruly, but just because of social and cultural differences between punk rockers, homeless, college students and the potentially white upper middle class Christians whose church Food Not Bombs is cooking in. Time constraints are often more pressing in borrowed space. Also, it sometimes happens that these locations are not dependable, and can be hard to acquire on a consistent basis.
Once the food has been gathered and cooked, Food Not Bombs must choose a place to serve the food. Many, if not most, feeding programs targeting the homeless or poor serve their food inside a space like a church or homeless shelter. However, most Food Not Bombs groups serve their food outside in a public space. The reasons for this are numerous, including that it is more visible to the general public. Food Not Bombs also tends to take the food to a location where the people who will eat it tend to hang out and frequent, instead of expecting the people to come to Food Not Bombs in some obscure or inconvenient location. Also, Food Not Bombs is not meant to be a program exclusively feeding just one segment of society. Rather than stigmatizing the people who eat with an act of charity exclusively for the homeless, Food Not Bombs attempts to create a community meal with a more positive feeling for all involved. All are welcome.
The space where Food Not Bombs serves is connected to who they serve. They do not just serve the homeless. Most programs that serve food in communities are charity programs, where there is a definite power divide between the people cooking and serving and the people eating. Food Not Bombs welcomes everyone to help prepare and cook and serve the food, as well as to eat it. This is seen as positive, because as one collective states, “[o]ne of the nicest things that can happen is that the people serving and the people eating begin to overlap” (CrimethInc. 251). By doing it this way, Food Not Bombs members, the homeless, and other community members are able to interact in a non-hierarchical way with each other. This is an intentional and integral part of who Food Not Bombs is- “Food Not Bombs is not a charity with ‘us’ giving food to ‘them’; as an anarchist organization, part of its purpose is to provide people the means to effect change in their own lives, and to break through the barriers of class, race, gender, age, ethnicity, and all other artificial boundaries that keep people separated from each other” (CrimethInc. 249). The diversity of participants and quality of interactions between them does not necessarily happen automatically. No matter how much anarchists and other participants want for it to happen, they have to reflect that desire in their actions. The need to be conscious about this is clearly understood by some within the radical and anarchist movement. One collective says:
It is nice though, to make Food Not Bombs a welcoming place to people who are often made to feel that they don’t have anything to contribute- never forget to reach out, and always remember that an open door is not enough. Some people- not just homeless people, but older people, younger people, middle-class people, your mom- may need extra encouragement to feel that they are truly welcome in the kitchen (CrimethInc. 251).

This is a significant quote because it reveals an awareness amongst radical and anarchist activists that there are limitations to the idea that simply existing is enough to create the social change they wish to see. Particularly in order to build the diverse participation that is desired, activists will have to go beyond passive mono cultural organization and actively seek to build an inclusive group.
One of the characteristics of Food Not Bombs that places it in the category of contemporary radical activism is the lack of structure in this tactic. The description of Food Not Bombs given above leaves a lot of room for interpretation and adaption. Within individual Food Not Bombs groups, affinity is the organizational tactic of choice. Butler and McKnight (xi) argue that Food Not Bombs has been able to survive as an organization for many reasons, some of which are directly linked to its affinity-based nature. This aspect of the group is quite central to its identity and success. There is no single, overarching organization and no formal connection between groups in different places, so even when one is persecuted by the state, there is no direct impact on Food Not Bombs in other places. Food Not Bombs can be completely personalized to a place and to the people doing it. There is no bureaucratic structure, which could potentially make Food Not Bombs less accessible and adaptable. There are no forms, approvals, registrations, or yearly dues necessary. There is no national or international coordination. The different Food Not Bombs groups sometimes may choose to voluntarily work together or in solidarity with each other, but this comes about through casual networking and tends to be only temporary coordination. The bottom line is that Food Not Bombs is unlike most other national or international organizations, particularly considering the many groups that exist under the title.
It has been argued that capitalism is a system where quantity is valued over quality. One alternative to this is the approach that believes the quality of actions and interactions is much more powerful and significant than the sheer number and size of them. It can also be said that capitalism values quality; in education, in health care, etc. However, quality products are priced in such a way that only the upper classes can afford them.
Quality is valued over quantity in Food Not Bombs. Quality has proven itself more valuable than quantity in the case of Food Not Bombs according to some accounts. It might also be argued that concentrating on quality allows the groups to work with what they have more effectively than worrying about quantity would. This could be interpreted as an attempt to turn limitations of the Food Not Bombs tactic (or other radical activism tactics) into virtues. However, there are some well articulated points that support this concept that quality is better than quantity in Food Not Bombs. Keeping this in mind, FNB is explored further below.
Despite the lack of hierarchical structure or national organizing, Food Not Bombs has spread across the United States and across the globe. New forms of networking and communication have contributed to this process. Between word of mouth, the internet, indymedia sites, speaking tours by folks like Keith McHenry, the book written about Food Not Bombs, and the visual presence of FNB in places across the globe, the idea of Food Not Bombs gets spread. The successes of this method are apparent in the number of Food Not Bombs groups. There are, according to the Food Not Bombs website approximately 400 known groups globally, with roughly half of those groups operating outside of the United States of America. Food Not Bombs is decentralized, and not dependent on the media for survival. Generally, Food Not Bombs “has been ignored by the national media; but Food Not Bombs does not depend on that media.” (Butler and McHenry xi). This idea seems to hold water- the stories of how people came to participate in Food Not Bombs vary vastly, speaking to the multiplicity of ways in which the message is spread. Food Not Bombs is covered in alternative type publications, indie media magazines and self published works. In certain communities, such as the homeless, working poor, activists, punks, travelling kid etc. word of mouth lets people know about Food Not Bombs in certain areas. There are radical and anarchist websites such as and local indymedia sites which allow people to post articles about Food Not Bombs (and many other radical events and issues) if they so choose. It is also important that Food Not Bombs does not aspire to get media coverage by the mainstream media. Sometimes the mainstream media does cover stories about Food Not Bombs, though not always favorably. Much of the publicity that Food Not Bombs gets, outside of the mainstream media, they have much more control over. This is important because Food Not Bombs is political, and thus not objective. They do not pretend to be objective, and typically make a point of bringing up their many points of view. Further reasons for not seeking out mainstream media coverage can be understood through a radical analysis of the mainstream media. Much of the contemporary radical activist movement is about localizing control over people’s lives. Media falls into this category. The mainstream media is controlled by a small number of people and corporations. The agenda of this media is undeniably capitalist. Though these media sources feign objectivity, they have their own clear agendas. Seeking coverage by these media forms would largely distort the Food Not Bombs message. Suggesting that FNB is being non-objective or cowardly by not seeking mainstream media is to deny the capitalist and statist nature of mainstream media.
Food Not Bombs’ use of alternative media should not be interpreted as choosing the easier path of preaching to the converted. This is not the reason. Rather, they use alternative media because that is generally the outlet that is available to them. Many Food Not Bombs groups will design their own brochures and fliers to distribute that also spread their message to people who do not have access to alternative media. They have found other outlets for publicity and they get their message across every time they serve food.
While many programs that serve food to the homeless and working poor take place in churches and homeless shelters, Food Not Bombs takes place in public spaces, creating greater visibility for their actions and for the presence of the people who come to eat. This is often a large part of how the message of the group is spread- through direct interaction with people. By occupying a visible public space, Food Not Bombs creates the opportunity for people who might otherwise not observe homeless people, or free food, or the public interacting freely to take notice. This might lead them to ask questions, and even join in.
The long term survival of Food Not Bombs is also connected to the nonhierarchical, decentralized, and (lack of) structure of the tactic. The importance of this is stressed by explaining one of the possible alternatives:Most radical social movements that start in the United States are crushed or coopted by the government, but this has not happened with Food Not Bombs. Decentralization, nonhierarchical structure, and direct democracy are powerful aids to survival and to avoiding cooptation.(Butler and McHenry xi)
The things that Food Not Bombs stand for are in direct opposition to what the government stands for, and thus the activists who do participate have firm ground to stand on against working with the government. Cooptation is a real threat to many types of social movements. From the perspective of radical activism, cooptation would mean an acceptance of reformist ideas. This is not an argument that things like Food Stamps or the Salvation Army are necessarily bad because they are reformist, this is simply stating that reform is not the approach being used by contemporary radical and anarchist movements. Improving life and providing more resources and opportunities for people are clearly positive things. Contemporary radical and anarchist movements are not so Maoist as to suggest that these types of reform are bad. That however does not mean that contemporary radical and anarchist movements are obligated to work towards reform.
Food Not Bombs is much more than a group of people sharing food. There are political aspects to just about everything that the group does. Being coopted by the government would change utterly what Food Not Bombs is and stands for, as it would inevitably alter many aspects of the functioning of the group, all of which have meaning. An example of cooptation would be if Food Not Bombs members decided to abandon their program and instead work as volunteers in a government run soup kitchen. It might be interpreted as cooptation if Food Not Bombs people decided to get all of the proper documentation and permits and do everything by the book. Not getting a permit or proper documentation means that Food Not Bombs is refusing to work within the hegemonical system. The benefits to this are the empowerment and possibility of autonomy revealed to participants and observers. As previously discussed, according to some analyses, requesting things or allowances from a hegemonical system reinforces that hegemony. Food Not Bombs, like many other radical activist forms, in some ways is struggling to not prioritize one issue or principle over the others. They are in a constant struggle to balance out their multiple goals – serving food to hungry people, promoting nonviolence, promoting autonomy, empowering individuals, avoiding behaving in ways that reinforce the dominance of the state, etc.
Food Not Bombs is clearly a nonviolent organization, based on the name alone. What is surprising to realize is that a group based around feeding people for free actually has to face the challenging question of practicing violence or nonviolence in their day to day activities. This comes up due to the ways Food Not Bombs has been confronted by the state. Because of the policy many branches of Food Not Bombs have of not making ‘requests’ of the hegemonical structures, their meals are not always served with the proper permits. One source exclaims (in standard radical rhetoric), “The revolution needs no permit” (Butler and McHenry 30). While to some people feeding other people in public spaces might not seem to be a big concern, in reality this has been cause for enough concern by government and police that they have made many attempts to prevent Food Not Bombs groups from serving food. When this happens. “[t]he typical Food Not Bombs reaction is simply to keep serving, with backup food if necessary. Food Not Bombs is based on direct action; when it is met with coercion, it takes action” (CrimethInc. 249).
One reason why this issue is important to cities is that many of the people who eat at Food Not Bombs tend to be homeless and working poor. In cities, homelessness and poverty are often considered to be forms of “blight”. City officials often enact restrictions on who can feed how many and where in attempts to remove the presence of the homeless from certain (often high profile and financially well off) areas of the city. These areas are public spaces, often parks or plazas available for use by the general public. When faced with police who are making arrests of food servers, groups had to make a conscious decision to take a non violent approach in their reaction to the police.
Let it be clear that the reason for the police repression of Food Not Bombs groups is not simply that they do not have a permit. The reason is not the enforcement of public health standards in food preparation. The reason tends to be more along the lines that because they operate without a permit or oversight of their food preparation and kitchen, they are setting an example of lawlessness. And even that fails to encompass the many reasons why city officials are against Food Not Bombs. The confrontation with the state created by the presence of Food Not Bombs has the potential to highlight ethical questions like who deserves food, who deserves to utilize public space, etc. The state’s response to this questions is quite often something they would rather not have explicitly expressed.
In San Francisco, the Food Not Bombs group has historically faced much opposition to their presence. The situation was so extreme that on repeated occasions Food Not Bombs members were subject to arrest. In these instances the members did not struggle against the police. The practice of nonviolence is a rejection of power and domination, which coincides with Day’s analysis of rejection of taking power and dominating as rejection of hegemony. The continuation of non violent tactics in the face of police repression is explained here:
It is extremely important that we act in a manner consistent with our values. It is never in our interest to use violence against the police or others. On the practical side, they usually can muster significantly more violent force than we could. But, more philosophically, we don’t want to use power to dominate in our efforts for social change. We want to create a society based on human rights and human needs, not the threat and use of violence. We do not want to dominate, we want to seek the truth and support each other as we resolve conflicts without violence (Butler and McHenry 74).

This multi-faceted approach and reasoning to the reaction to the police is sophisticated, and belies how well thought out Food Not Bombs sometimes is and has the potential to be. It also confirms the ways in which Food Not Bombs is busy creating an alternative reality. The issue of whether or not one’s means are consistent with one’s ends is a theme in many socialmovements. It is even more important in the case of movements which aspire to create a new reality now, not later. The statement above should also be acknowledged as just representing the viewpoint of two members of Food Not Bombs, and not necessarily one of all contemporary radical and anarchist activists. For instance, some of the statements above conflict with the tactics used by and attitudes of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front discussed later. This is a clear example of the different goals of groups necessitating different tactics for success.
Unlike some groups which use direct action as a tactic, Food Not Bombs does so above ground. There is a performative aspect to their direct actions. In some aspects they are still connected to the first manifestation of Food Not Bombs as street theater. This means that even when Food Not Bombs people are doing something illegal- like serving food without a permit- they do so openly. One reason for this goes back to the message of the group and its name. The name can be seen as death culture versus life culture, war versus community. Food Not Bombs wants exposure for life affirming alternatives, which means they have to be a visible presence. The conundrum of wanting to be open and yet still avoid too much contact with and exposure to authorities is explained as follows: “Because we generally ignore the authorities, we allow them as little contact with us as possible; but, as we want exposure for our life-affirming alternatives, we never hide what we are doing. We might protest directly in front of an oppressive bank, but the contact is on our terms.” (Butler and McHenry 74). Of course, operating in the open does make the group much more vulnerable to oppression and repression. What should not be overlooked is that Food Not Bombs does things on its own terms. By being aware of what they are getting themselves into, the group can decide whether or not certain actions are appropriate or desirable. For this to work, groups must be conscious of their decisions and the potential consequences of them.
A joke, which I was told in the Village Cafe in Richmond, Virginia (while writing the Food Not Bombs section of this project) goes like this: “How many Food Not Bombers does it take to change a lightbulb? None, because Food Not Bombs does not change anything” (Austin). And I laughed, because the joke reveals one perspective and criticism of FNB which is in some ways valid. What this joke reveals, is that the perception of Food Not Bombs from the outside is very different than the perception from the inside. In this case, the joke may just stem from jaded hipsters, or it might show how unfathomable the work of Food Not Bombs is to those who are more mainstream. Because Food Not Bombs and other contemporary radical activisms are so radically different from New Social Movements or other standard political forms, it can be hard to judge their success. They operate in a different arena- it would be like comparing a basketball score with a golf score.
One of the reasons why Food Not Bombs’ ‘success’ is difficult to quantify has to do with empowerment, and the effect that being an activist in Food Not Bombs has on participants. The problems in the world are vast and can seem very difficult to get a hold of and do anything about. The solution to this overwhelming feeling (which often results in apathy) is finding a specific way to make a particular change in a positive direction. The name of the movement, Food Not Bombs, is practical and simplistic (Butler and McHenry 5).“Food Not Bombs doesn’t simply feed people and redistribute resources- it is one of the most common and effective ways for people to get their first taste of anarchist politics and action” (CrimethInc. 248). It promotes self empowerment in the face of large problems, by being simple enough to be achievable. It has been said that, “Above all, the Food Not Bombs experience is an opportunity for self-empowerment.” (Butler and McHenry 7). The opportunity for self- empowerment in FNB is for both the folks who cook and the folks who eat, and ideally there is overlap between these groups; Self-empowerment can be defined as the feeling of confidence in one’s own abilities to control aspects of one;s own life and situation. Self-empowerment teaches people to value their own role in their lives and not only depend on others. Self-empowerment helps people to see that change is possible and that they can be part of the change. This is critical for the types of radical and anarchist activism that groups such as Food Not Bombs promote. Instead of waiting for the government or a corporation to take care of our needs or create necessary change, these movements, through their activism, create the change themselves and show the possibility for more changes. Self-empowerment helps people to see how they do not actually need the government or corporations to make their lives better- that they can and must do it themselves.
It would be a mistake to address Food Not Bombs as a singular entity or experience. Politically, one can make generalizations about how Food Not Bombs might be, but in the end, the fluidity and freedom of the tactic would prevent any generalizations from being accurate. And it is a question that comes up frequently- is Food Not Bombs an anarchist group? Well no, not officially, because there is no official party line. At the same time:
Although Food Not Bombs does not have a strict political platform, there is a general political philosophy with which it has become identified over the years. The core of this philosophy is that each local group is autonomous. Every individual and group chooses its own values and politics (Butler and McHenry 73).
Some Food Not Bombs groups may have explicitly stated politics, values, and goals. But compared to other feeding programs- such as those carried out through religious institutions, Food Not Bombs is remarkably open. Some members may be anarchists, some Christians, some Socialists, some Democrats, some Republicans, some fraternity members, and some completely unidentified. It really varies week to week and group to group. The association of anarchism with Food Not Bombs is accurate, as FNB is a tactic that many anarchists seem drawn to, and which often fits their world view.
Decision making in the Food Not Bombs style reflects, again, the change that the group wishes to see. Food Not Bombs does not support Democracy or electoral politics as effective methods of making change, or communicating. This is reflected in the way FNB groups make in house decisions. Making decisions through a democratic system of voting and majority rules is a quantitative way of reaching a decision, meaning based on numbers. Using the consensus method is a qualitative method of reaching decisions, meaning based on the quality of the decision (Butler and McHenry 12). One critique of democracy is that, “Voting is a win or lose model in which people are often more concerned about the numbers it takes to win a majority than they are in the issue itself” (Butler and McHenry 12). Food Not Bombs groups tend to operate by consensus, as discussed earlier in this text. Nothing is perfect, and certainly Food Not Bombs groups do not always achieve the methods that they wish to. Because the groups include people who were largely raised within the hegemonic system of society, it can be difficult to change one’s mindset to one of working together and with consensus. It is a common problem that certain members of a group may have a tendency to take control- whether they intend to or not. The style of decision making within Food Not Bombs also contributes to the empowerment of participants.
Because of the national and international success of Food Not Bombs as a tactic, it is well known in many activist, anarchist, and homeless communities. It has become a very central networking resource for these communities. This is because a newcomer in a city, whether it be a train hopping punk, an anarchist or a homeless person, knows to ask around about Food Not Bombs- and then when they find out where it is serving, they become connected to the network of people eating and serving and cooking. Other activist activities occur less publicly and less regularly. It is more intimidating and difficult to arrive new in town and figure out where the local anti-globalization meeting is, than it is to arrive in a park and eat a warm meal with friendly people. This dynamic leads to the idea that. “Food Not Bombs is a gateway drug to activism” (CrimethInc. 248). Participation in Food Not Bombs typically creates opportunities for participation in other radical and anarchist activities.

2 Responses to “Guide to Richmond Food Not Bombs”

  1. Lauren S. April 5, 2010 at 5:17 pm #

    Thought you may find this of interest:

  2. Lauren S. April 7, 2010 at 7:21 pm #

    Mo, I know you make a lot of what you have. Here is a great idea to make old T shirts into reusable grocery bags:

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