The sweet scent of carrot-ginger soup lingered to tinge the noses of those outside the 16th and Mission BART station. Pots filled with beans, vegetables and soup – all vegan – surrounded the volunteers serving food.
“Food, not bombs!” Daisy Collazo cried to passersby.
Food Not Bombs is not a charity group.
Developed in the midst of the Cold War as an anti-nuclear movement, Food Not Bombs evolved and widened its messages to include the need to feed the hungry.
Today, it is a movement consisting of loose-knit collectives that share vegan and vegetarian food with the goal of fighting hunger while at the same time promoting anti-capitalism and anti-war messages.
“Food Not Bombs is a statement against the wastefulness in a capitalist structure wherein massive amounts of food are being disposed of every day,” said Aiden Gleisberg, a volunteer with the organization. “So, we put that food to good use considering there are people who go without having food on a daily basis.”
He continued, “The second part is a political statement of getting a recognition that the government is investing billions of dollars on other efforts, particularly like the war, instead of to people who are living in the U.S. That’s the ‘not bombs’ part.”
For more than 20 years, the group shared food without a permit, a practice that got them into trouble with city officials. On their website, the group states they believe “revolution” does not “require any permits.”
In 1988, one of Food Not Bombs’ chapters in San Francisco tried to obtain a permit for some community organizing for the first time, but was denied by the city.
After officials became aware of the group’s movement, members were repeatedly arrested for sharing food.
Collazo said she no longer sees a real difficulty, like getting arrested during her volunteering, and she attributes this to the politics of the city. In other cities, it may not be so easy.
“It has to do with public opinion right now,” she said. “San Francisco just happens to be a lenient place where people support activism and things like feeding the homeless, which is a no-brainer.”
In Orlando, under a city ordinance that was passed in July 2006, a permit is required for any organization that share food with more than 25 people. The group continues to battle city officials today.
Ted Hexter, one of the volunteers at the San Francisco chapter, said people should not be arrested for sharing food, as he understands the difficulty of living with limited resources.
Before he joined Food Not Bombs, Hexter experienced a period of time when he had to constantly weigh shelter versus food.
“It’s like, ‘should I pay rent on time or should I buy food?’” Hexter said.
In 2010, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that 925 million people around the world are undernourished.
“The idea of Food Not Bombs is there should be free food for all,” Gleisberg said. “Food can come for free.”
Food Not Bombs collects food from various locations ranging from food banks to dumpsters.
The group tries to make use of good food that otherwise would be thrown away.
The Food Not Bombs group in the Mission relies on regular food donations from Arriba Juntos, a non-profit group that works closely with immigrants.
“The food (that is donated from Arriba Juntos) probably is food that would otherwise go to a dumpster, and we intercept it before it even hits the trash,” Collazo said.
The Arriba Juntos organization obtains their food from farmers, industries and grocery stores.
The food can include items close to its sell-by date or test-marketed products.
As Food Not Bombs has different chapters that operate independently from one another, a big city like San Francisco can have more than one group working within a community.
These groups operate their own autonomous “cookhouses” where they make their own decisions.
These groups, however, have some codes that the majority of chapters follow, like serving vegetarian or vegan food.
Most of the groups do not serve meat because it has a higher risk for spreading food-borne illnesses when served, especially if it is close to its expiration date.
The group also aligned with environmentalists by trying to feed people with plant-based diets, limiting human impact on the environment while further advocating its message of non-violence.
A vegetarian diet is viewed as a way to avoid cruelty against animals.
Food Not Bombs is active in more than 60 countries with approximately 62 groups in California.