Rebels with a cause

A group of about 15 people swarms around me, pulling melons and apples from the box I’ve just set on the sidewalk. They push and jostle like kids waiting for autographs, and the box empties in seconds. The other boxes, filled to the brim with vegetables and bags of bread, disappear just as rapidly.

Over the next couple of hours, our ragtag group of mostly punk-looking youths stands near the corner of Wilson Avenue and Sheridan Road and shares food with whoever walks by and wants some. Some regular recipients stay and talk, while others accept the food with a simple “thank you” or “God bless you.”

Though most of the people don’t know it, the food they ravenously consume would have ended up perishing in a dumpster if not for the efforts of this bunch of kids.

This is Food Not Bombs.

A joint report issued in 1997 by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency found that approximately 96 billion pounds of food are wasted in this country every year, while millions of people go hungry on a daily basis.

Food Not Bombs, or FNB, finds these figures very disturbing. Composed of more than 100 independent chapters across North America, Europe and Australia, FNB collects food that would otherwise meet its end in a landfill and uses it to prepare vegetarian meals to feed anyone who is hungry.

But FNB is more than just an outdoor soup kitchen. The group brings food to the streets not for lack of space, but because of an intentional decision observed since FNB’s inception. By serving the homeless, hungry and poor inside, FNB says, traditional soup kitchens perpetuate the philosophy of “out of sight, out of mind.” FNB attempts the opposite — bringing attention to homelessness by serving in highly public places.

FNB was founded in Cambridge, Mass., in 1980 by anti-nuclear activists protesting the Seabrook Nuclear Power Project. The stance of the fledgling group was twofold: Food is a right, not a privilege, and because there is enough food for everyone, hunger is a form of violence supported by the state. FNB began as a collective that cooked meals from reclaimed food, fed the homeless and provided sustenance to activists at protests and rallies.

Each chapter acts as an autonomous operation, maintained by individuals of the same mind as the original founders. Though no central hierarchy exerts any control over the independent groups, FNB flourishes.

For about three years, a small but dedicated FNB chapter has called Chicago home. The largely youth-run group, with most members under 22, shares every Saturday morning near the corner of Wilson and Sheridan. Usually only eight to 10 people show up on any given weekend, and some members commute from the suburbs to participate. Even so, the group rarely misses a sharing.

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Mark Novotny, 21, has been coming to FNB longer than anyone currently involved. The Northern Illinois University junior has traveled to the city from suburban Countryside just about every Saturday for two-and-a-half years. Tall and loose-jointed, with an almost perpetual grin slapped on his face, Novotny has me laughing during most of the time I spend at FNB.

Novotny calls himself an anarchist, a label he thinks many people misunderstand. “Anarchism is more of a utopian goal,” he says. “It’s about raising people’s consciousness. If you say ‘anarchism’ to the average person on the street, they’ll say that’s crazy.”

But Novotny asserts that anarchism is about taking small, achievable steps toward an ultimate goal. “With Food Not Bombs you get a direct result,” he says. “You can see that you made a difference for someone.”

Novotny justifies his years of commitment very simply. “The reason I go is because it helps people,” he says. “It makes a difference to people, because we do it every week, and it’s something people have come to rely on.”

The organization depends greatly on Novotny, one of the main suppliers of the FNB’s food. Because he has a car, he can easily transport the large boxes of produce he collects from a grocery store near his house. “I’m not a real busy person, so I guess I can afford to come down more than other people,” he says. “Other people don’t have cars, so if I don’t bring the produce, it just won’t get done.”

Blaine Piraneo and Hillary Hutchinson are the two other FNB members who show up week in and week out. Piraneo, an 18-year-old student at the Art Institute of Chicago, is an FNB veteran from New Brunswick, N.J. The 19-year-old Hutchinson is from Glen Ellyn, attends the College of DuPage, and commutes into the city every Saturday.

Short in stature, Piraneo keeps her head shaved, and her usual garb includes a denim vest that boldly reads “Fuck you and your gender roles” across the back. Her participation in FNB grows out of a greater activist philosophy. “I’m just working on building up community self-determination, getting the poor and homeless to believe they have the power, and that they can make a difference,” Piraneo says. “I want to educate and encourage. Once you have that, you can’t really stop that force.”

Hutchinson’s bleached white hair, numerous piercings and a few tattoos — including one on her ankle of the Chicago FNB logo, a hand clutching an onion, which is an adaptation of the more universal FNB logo of a hand clutching a carrot — make her stand out in a crowd. Her sweet, unassuming personality has endeared her to many of the people FNB serves. Numerous regulars talk to her at length on the sidewalk, and if she misses a Saturday, people start to wonder where she is.

Hutchinson single-handedly supplies a major portion of the food to FNB. She gets large quantities of bread from a bakery in La Grange, and she also dumpster-dives at a supermarket in her town. Hutchinson says she has been caught both by store managers and the police, who usually ask her what she is doing and tell her to leave after she explains.

Many supermarkets and grocery stores refuse to donate their wasted food to FNB. Hutchinson recalls hearing stories from FNB members in other cities about stores that either lock their dumpsters or pour bleach on food when it is thrown away. Other bakeries and markets have industrial trash compactors to crush their excess food. “If you’re not going to give away the food you waste and someone wants to actually go into a dumpster to eat it, fine, you know?” Hutchinson grumbles.

A large part of Chicago FNB’s problem obtaining food is the lack of Good Samaritan law protection. In many states, these laws protect businesses and individuals from liability when they donate food to charitable organizations. While a 1996 federal law established minimum Good Samaritan protection in regard to food donation nationwide, the Good Samaritan law in Illinois pertains mainly to emergency medical care but says nothing about donations. This hampers the Chicago FNB’s ability to get food, because many businesses fear they’ll be held responsible for any harm that results from the products they donate.

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With food flowing from so many diverse sources, the FNBers do what they can with what they find. On a good week, they might find onions or something a little more exotic such as asparagus or eggplant. But most of the time the ingredients include a pile of raw vegetables, like green peppers, carrots, spinach, some sort of potato and maybe broccoli.

FNB serves only vegetarian meals for a number of reasons. Members claim it is a healthier way to eat, and they hope to promote good nutrition for a group that usually eats whatever it can get. “I don’t think it’s so much of a problem that people are going to starve to death,” Novotny says. “It’s that people are going to be malnourished and get sick,” he says.

The group also insists that more people can be fed on a vegetarian diet, since farming fruits and vegetables rather than raising animals is a more efficient use of land. But perhaps most salient of all is the danger of dealing with potentially rotten animal products during food reclamation. Safe and edible ve
getables are easier to pick out.

But FNB’s vegetarian meals usually end up in the form of a somewhat bland soup or stew that seems to taste the same every week no matter what anyone does. It’s not horrible, however, and redemption usually comes in the form of the side dishes, which include fried eggplant, baked apples and fried potatoes. And apparently Chicago FNB has some reason to be proud. “I came here, and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ The food is so much better than it was back home,” Piraneo says.

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FNB’s nonviolent philosophy and anti-militarism is where the “not bombs” part comes in. “You can spend so much on a B-2 bomber, but that money can feed so many people,” Novotny says. “Feeding people is a lot more logical than building a weapon of destruction.” In practice, this ideal means FNB participants will not fight back violently against police or other opponents if a conflict arises.

But this nonviolent emphasis is largely irrelevant to Chicago FNB, because the chapter is usually left alone by the police and other city authorities. Novotny believes this is partly because of where they serve the food. He says that when he joined, the group had just stopped serving in Wicker Park, where they had been harassed repeatedly. “Wicker Park has become more of a yuppie place, so they might not want homeless people hanging around,” he says. Piraneo attributes the lack of harassment to the low profile of the chapter. “We don’t have that many people out,” she says. “We’re kind of harmless, and we’re only there once a week. People come and people go. We’re not that rowdy.”

On multiple occasions, the police have stopped and asked FNB what they are doing during a sharing. The officers hang around uncertainly for a few minutes, then drive away without offering any serious or threatening objections to the chapter’s activities. But other chapters suffer far more severely at the hands of police; in San Francisco, for instance, FNB activists have been arrested more than 1,000 times.

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After being on the street for about an hour, the pot of stew is half empty. An overturned box serves as a low, makeshift table. A couple of the FNB kids sit on the cement sidewalk in a cluster, talking and laughing while they eat stew and pass it out to whoever wants some.

Piraneo and I stand off to the side, talking to an old woman named Rose who has stopped to eat. Though the weather is fair, she wears an old and dirty brown winter coat that hangs to her ankles. The ratty stocking cap pulled tight over her ears is covered with a random array of bright but tarnished costume jewelry.

Rose is an angry woman. It seems that a lifetime of loneliness and hardship has left her bitter and upset. As she talks to us, she complains about one person for their lack of manners and rails against another she believes has done something wrong. If anyone refuses our food or neglects to thank us for it, Rose becomes indignant, incredulously proclaiming their rudeness and ungratefulness. We unsuccessfully try to assuage her anger. Even when an acquaintance of hers stops to say hello, she refuses to talk to him when he turns down our food.

But as countless cars chug by on the busy street and the food in the pot slowly disappears, we also talk of happier things. A long-ago immigrant from Eastern Europe, Rose speaks Czech, which Piraneo studies in school. She asks the old woman how to say different words, and then attempts to repeat them after her. Piraneo’s earnest but unsuccessful attempts trigger an unexpected response in Rose. She laughs. As she does, her delicate, wrinkled hand comes to rest gently on my arm for support. And in that touch, I feel a barrier disappear. For that instant, the three of us have connected. All the harsh realities that this woman faces daily have vanished, and we exist purely in the moment.

Eventually Rose ambles off toward home, and FNB packs up for the day. Empty stomachs have been filled and community has been established. Awareness has been raised and friendships have been formed. And these kids will be back next Saturday to do it all over again. nyou