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The Revolution Doesn't Need a Permit: An Interview with Keith McHenry

FNB sketch

The Food Not Bombs cofounder on justice, community, and the radical idea of sharing.  

Back in 1980, while Keith McHenry was working for a moving company in Boston, he came across a poster of children climbing on a jungle gym. A caption read, It will be a great day when the schools get all the money they needed and the Air Force had to have a bake sale to buy a bomber. McHenry was then a student at Boston University, and his classes with Howard Zinn had inspired him to get involved in the local anti-nuclear movement. But the poster’s message got McHenry and his friends thinking in broader terms, about how military priorities were choking out the social support that individuals and families depend on. They quickly realized that what their community needed—what the world needed—was food, not bombs.

It wasn’t long before the new group’s approach began to take shape: Volunteers would salvage surplus food from grocery stores, bakeries, and gardens (and sometimes dumpsters), prepare it, and serve it for free in parks, on street corners, and occasionally in front of banks. Inspired by Frances Moore Lappé’s 1971 classic study Diet for a Small Planet, they kept it veggie and nutritious, and encouraged passersby to think about the connections between industrial agriculture, military spending, and poverty through literature and conversation.

Today, Food Not Bombs has blossomed into more than 1,000 chapters worldwide. The group’s radical commitment to sharing, conversation, and community has made it a jumping off point for tackling a whole host of related issues, from the power of Big Ag to anti-homeless laws to the global financial system. And for McHenry, a big part of that equation has been FNB’s decentralized, democratic structure that thrives on a wide variety of voices and ideas. “It’s sort of like the diversity of the forest,” he told me.

Recently, McHenry stopped by the Food Not Bombs chapter in Lawrence, Kansas, to talk about the movement he’s been organizing with for more than 30 years. After his presentation, and once everyone had enjoyed a fifth or sixth helping of the delicious tofu spread he’d demonstrated how to prepare, I spoke with him about the ideas behind FNB and how it developed into a worldwide movement. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

How does Food Not Bombs model how a new society should work?

We are trying to model a post-capitalist society by showing first that there is abundance—because there is an abundance of food, no one should go hungry. At the same time, we work cooperatively by using the consensus process. We are a leaderless movement where everyone’s opinion is respected equally and we try to draw out the best ideas and feelings of each of the people in our collectives. Each Food Not Bombs chapter is decentralized. It’s sort of like the diversity of the forest where you have the personalities in one Food Not Bombs community making decisions related to the way that community is and as long as the group is nonviolent, doesn’t have a hierarchy, and uses consensus to make decisions, and the food is free to everyone without restriction, how the different chapters want to organize themselves is up to them.

As a result, it’s created this amazing creativity around the world where Food Not Bombs chapters under those little guidelines will come up with the most remarkable solutions to whatever their local problems are. So hopefully in the future whole towns could be organized in this kind of manner. And actually in my book, Hungry for Peace, I write about that—how a collective of Food Not Bombs activists, making decisions by consensus, could be one of many, many affinity groups in a town that deal with different issues in a non-hierarchical way. That maybe there would be a spokes council meeting where two or three people from Food Not Bombs, two or three people from Homes Not Jails, two or three people from the Food Not Lawns gardening collective would all come together to make decisions in a larger community. And so the whole idea is just a small infrastructure of a cooperative, noncompetitive, sustainable way of organizing community, as opposed to the capitalist, exploitive system we currently have. 

Food Not Bombs grew out of the anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s and 1980s. How did that happen?

Playground posterA friend of mine, Brian Feigenbaum, was arrested at a protest outside Seabrook Nuclear Power Station on May 24 [1980]. So a few of us decided to start an affinity group to be his legal defense team. Our idea was originally to raise money doing bake sales. And they weren’t very successful. But at one point, when I was working for a moving company called Smooth Move, I came across a poster that said, It will be a great day when the schools get all the money they needed and the Air Force had to have a bake sale to buy a bomber. That gave us the idea to dress up in military uniforms at the bake sales, and pretend we were from the Air Force and we were trying to buy a bomber. We’d then get to talk to people about Brian’s case and why we were trying to raise money for his legal defense. So it meant that that one protest was the spark that brought the eight of us together to do Food Not Bombs.

At the same time, we were doing research on the dangers of nuclear power, the connection between nuclear power and spent fuel in nuclear weapons programs, and how the technology for nuclear power grew out of the atomic bomb in World War II. Many of the same corporations that were profiting from the nuclear weapons industry after World War II also profited from the nuclear power industry. So we could see that the centralized control was core to the ills of our community. You had the boards of directors of these corporations—unelected by us—forcing their agenda on the community. It reflected a lot of the problems we were facing in America at that time and in the world.

We started by organizing a protest against the board of directors of the Bank of Boston at their stockholders’ meeting on October 26, 1981. But we found that those board members were not only on the boards of those companies we were fighting against—the Bank of Boston, and energy companies like the Public Service Company of New Hampshire and Babcock & Wilcox—but they were also in all these other corporations. They were conspiring to maximize their power and profit outside of the democratic process. So many of these decisions were made out of self-interest that were negatively impacting New England, where we were living. It made no sense really where you have so much hydropower, wind power, and so on that could be cheaply and safely produced that you would build a billion dollar nuclear power station on a point of land where thousands and thousands of people would be stranded if they had to flee. There was no sense to the whole project. 

And that was the same with other aspects of society. At that time industrial farming was starting. So you could see that there was going to be problems with lack of nutrition and the abuse of the soil and the earth—the same thing: being concerned with maximizing profits with a disregard for the community. The financial industry is the same way—not worrying about lending money to build houses for people to really live in, but to maximize profits though exploiting mortgages and so on, which in the end forced thousands of people to be homeless. So all these things end up being parallel—the same political and economic system that was responsible for nuclear power was also responsible for all the other policies that were obviously not sustainable.

People seem to approach the radicalism in Food Not Bombs in sometimes a very moderate or nonpolitical way. The way the actions are set up seems to encourage this. Was that intentional?

Yeah, we realized early on that one of the things we failed at in the anti-nuclear movement was reaching the mainstream community with enough of a depth of ideas. So a lot of times people would learn about nuclear power, be against it, and maybe join our group, Clamshell Alliance. But they wouldn’t perceive any connection between nuclear power and how society was organized. The other thing that was happening was that groups like Clamshell would only talk to themselves—we would only talk to other activists that were against nuclear power. We didn’t really reach out to create a broad base and try to connect with regular people with the concerns they had, day to day. Things like health and diet were things that would really reach the regular community. 

The other thing we realized was that if Food Not Bombs went out on a regular basis—and in our case, when we started, we were everyday in the public space in Harvard Square or Park Street Station—the mainstream community would walk by us and end up engaging us in conversation because we were going to be there for several hours. And because the food was vegetarian, which was unusual at the time, you could attract their attention with a tasty meal and then engage them in conversation or get them interested in some literature. A lot of times people would argue with us, and they’d think what we were saying is stupid. But that was not a problem from our perspective. The important thing was getting people who were only watching mainstream TV and getting their news from the mainstream to think outside the box and to realize other people had other ideas. So from the very beginning our whole emphasis has been to build a conversation with people who would otherwise never think about military priorities, problems with capitalism, problems of climate change. Because people’s only access to information is through mainstream media they’ll never know about these things.

And in the beginning, homelessness and hunger in America was a just possibility in the future. It wasn’t as widespread in 1980. There were certainly people that lived in housing projects that didn’t have adequate food, and things like that. But it wasn’t in any way a catastrophe like it is today. And so we were trying to organize the community to keep [then-President] Reagan from instituting policies that would lead to homelessness and hunger. And hence the name, Food Not Bombs, in part because Reagan was announcing Star Wars, the MX missile system—he was going to start spending lots of the federal budget on the military, while ending funding for things like public housing. So we were really more of an advocacy group rather than meeting people’s direct needs. In fact, meeting those needs was not the overwhelming aspect of what our original task was, even though we did bring groceries to housing projects and to people that needed food. But the main thing was trying to build popular support to stop policies that would cause more poverty and more hardship.

Food Not Bombs

It seems very much Occupy—like the advantage of having a physical space where people can meet and discuss issues that they wouldn’t normally discuss, and that it could be a jumping off point for more activism.

Yeah, in fact, I’ve been a big proponent of occupations as a tactic for almost 30 years now. We did the occupation in San Francisco in 1989—it lasted 27 days. We were there 24 hours a day and the whole community would come by and start talking to us because they knew we would be there. And we could begin to have a dialogue about issues like homelessness and hunger in San Francisco. Later, Food Not Bombs did a 100-day occupation—with a lot of other people as part of a mass movement called the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Food Not Bombs had a field kitchen there and provided the meals and fed people for 100 days. And in Sarajevo, Food Not Bombs shared food for two years at a farm workers’ vigil. So I’ve been really interested in this idea of occupation ever since the 1989 action in San Francisco.

Later there was an action at the WTO protests in Cancun [in 2003] where a group of us met afterwards and decided we’d try to promote a strategy of organizing occupations against the WTO and against these trade agreements. I volunteered to make a website, which I made—consensus.net/tentcity.html. And then we would propose these occupations—mostly outside the White House at that time—and tried four or five of them. You know, we’d camp out in front of the White House for like a week and we’d get 20 or 30 Food Not Bombs activists with us at the most, and then we would abandon it because it was clear that even though we had endorsements from famous people and all this stuff, we just weren’t getting people to come. Then Cindy Sheehan decided to do an occupation outside the White House after the last one of those that we did, and it got a little better response because people knew about her. And a group of us decided to do an occupation at Freedom Plaza [in Washington, DC] on October 6, 2011—the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. There was a coalition of people including Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese, but all these diverse activist groups decided to start camping in Freedom Plaza.

At the same time we were organizing occupations outside City Halls across Florida to end the criminalization of poverty there. Not only was Food Not Bombs being arrested in cities all over Florida—and the case against Orlando Food Not Bombs had come to a head in a federal court in Atlanta—there was also all of these anti-homeless laws being passed in cities throughout the state. So we announced an occupation of only 24 hours in front of as many City Halls in Florida as possible. (I ended up doing 19 days in jail in Orlando for feeding people in violation of laws there.) As it turned out, while we were organizing both of these campaigns, we got an email from Adbusters saying that they wanted to occupy Wall Street. Food Not Bombs activists in New York were among the first people who thought that was a great idea. So we announced that on the front page of the Food Not Bombs website.

So I think it’s not a coincidence that a lot of philosophies of Occupy reflect how Food Not Bombs has been organized for all these years, like the general assemblies, making decisions by consensus, being in a public square, reclaiming the public space. All those things had been part of the culture that Food Not Bombs had been immersing itself in for three decades before Occupy. And needless to say, to do an occupation you need ongoing food service and it makes a lot of sense that a Food Not Bombs community would be a really necessary part of making sure occupations can happen.

I got to Chicago on the very first day of Occupy—on the 17th of September, 2011—and the Food Not Bombs kids were getting together bagels and peanut butter and jelly and stuff. They didn’t know how it was going to work but they wanted to bring food to it immediately. And after two days I’d left there and headed immediately to New York with a van full of rice, and sure enough, Food Not Bombs kids were already involved. In fact, the women that were sprayed in the face with pepper spray by the police in those famous early videos turned out to be the cooks that I was cooking with in Manhattan. So there was definitely a huge connection between what Food Not Bombs has done all these years and some of the philosophy and implementation of Occupy.

How does vegetarianism fit within Food Not Bombs’ commitment to nonviolence?

Well for me personally, I had to kill seven roosters when I was 15 or 16 when I was with my dad. And that was such an obviously violent act—sticking the knife in the head of these roosters, and all the other hens and roosters on the farm were flipping out when I did that. The goats were upset. Everybody was screaming—it was like a Hitchcock movie or something. And that’s when I became vegetarian because I thought, “Wow, these chickens aren’t these unfeeling beings that nobody cares about.” It was very dramatic. So I started feeling from that age that the violence against animals was based on the same the kind of excuse that the state and corporations use for violence in war. You know, “They’re commodities. We don’t care if we’re exploiting them or harming them.” And I remember there used to be arguments about when babies would start to feel pain and stuff like that. But it was obvious that babies were suffering and crying when they had rashes. To think that they weren’t in pain, and that these animals and people that you couldn’t talk to somehow are not in pain just because you can’t talk to them? It was obviously crazy.

So once we started Food Not Bombs, all eight of us were vegetarians and we all agreed that violence against animals was violence just like violence in war. It was just all a continuum of violence. If we were going to be nonviolent we couldn’t be serving meat because then we’re just deciding that this violence against humans was somehow at one level, but violence against the earth and against animals was at another.

Do you have any advice for people who might want to get involved in Food Not Bombs?

Well with Food Not Bombs you need to be a bit self-motivated. No one’s going to tell you what to do or how to do it. And in a way that’s the beauty of Food Not Bombs. It’s an opportunity for people who are normally in a society where they’re being told what to do, to fulfill their own actions and their own desires without having to be directed.

Keith McHenryI’d encourage people to first contact their local Food Not Bombs group and ask if they need volunteers. And if there isn’t one, visit FoodNotBombs.net and learn how to start your own chapter. On the site, there are seven steps you can follow to launch a group. What’s really key is to organize a meeting, and bring people together to come to that meeting so you don’t do all the work yourself. Figure out who’s got food that’s being thrown away, what local grocery stores there are, and talk to the produce workers and bakers to get that food. Talk to homeless and hungry people about what day might be the best for them to come and get food.

Another idea is to collect food and take it to the already-existing shelters and food programs at the beginning, and develop a relationship with them, before you start going out on the streets. You might do that for a month or two, and then go out on the streets. A lot of chapters don’t do this when they start but it can be very helpful. You also need to have a high-visibility location in your community where a lot people walk by and you can talk to them. It’s also important to have literature and a banner at every meal so that you can encourage dialogue and conversation. And you want to be on time and regular so that people can depend on you—it’s amazing what a powerful political concept being reliable really is in this society. If you always do show up on time and you do show up every week that message will resonate with the community on all kinds of levels, and people will take you seriously about all the other ideas that you’re working around.

I think that if we have Food Not Bombs groups in every city in the world and we’re all sharing these same ideas of sustainability, of cooperation, of compassion—it could really have a huge impact. It could be like the “100th monkey effect” that we used to talk about in the anti-nuclear movement. Back in the ‘70s there was a study done about how the 100th monkey washed their food in the river and the idea just took off with all the monkeys in the world, even though they weren’t directly communicating with each other. And our feeling was if we could get every person to feel that they deserved self-respect and dignity, that food was a right not a privilege, we could have a huge impact on society in many, many ways—not only ending hunger and poverty, but building a sustainable future that was free from pollution and climate change and exploitation in factories and all the different, crazy things that we have to live through under a capitalist system. It could be a good bridge to transition away from unsustainable, capitalist corporate power to a future where we could live in harmony with the environment and with one another.

To learn more about getting involved, check out these seven steps to organize a Food Not Bombs chapter in your community (and scroll down for downloadable flyers!). To read a PDF of Hungry for Peace, Keith McHenry’s updated history of FNB, click here. To purchase a copy of the book, click here.