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

| 10/31/2013 10:12:00 AM

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.

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