|Food Not Bombs is back, this time unopposed
By Rebecca S. Bender, Eye Associate Editor
THE PLAZA - It starts with a parade winding down H Street. From day to day,
the numbers of participants vary, but the impromptu music, composed with empty
paint buckets, pans and wooden spoons, containers of home-made vegetarian food
and festive atmosphere are constant. As the procession nears the Plaza, its
arrival is gleefully proclaimed: "Food Not Bombs!" The event takes
place every Friday, Saturday and Sunday between 5 and 6 p.m., and lately on
The purpose is a simple one: providing food to those who need it. "It’s
like a potluck or a picnic - we’re just sharing food with friends,"
explained Miguel, a volunteer with the Arcata chapter of Food Not Bombs (FNB).
Feeding the hungry
Food Not Bombs, a worldwide movement started in Cambridge, Mass. in 1980, is
based on the premise that human life should be valued over material wealth,
and that poverty is a form of violence. The group serves warm vegetarian and
vegan meals in public parks to all comers, feeding the hungry - often with food
that would otherwise have gone to a landfill - and drawing attention to issues
of poverty, inequality and waste.
Every group is autonomous and non-hierarchical, operating by consensus and
with an abiding awareness of FNB’s guiding principles of non-violence,
equality and justice. FNB often collaborates with other organizations in supporting
peace, environmental and social causes.
The Arcata FNB chapter has been serving food off and on since 1993, a history
that’s been spotted with its share of government run-ins. In 1994, the
City brought a lawsuit against the group, alleging improper food handling and
inappropriate public behavior. After extensive ongoing negotiations, during
which time the serve-and-ticket dance between FNB volunteers and Arcata police
officers became a regularly scheduled show on the Plaza, FNB agreed in 1998
to get a food preparation permit. For two years, they served out of the D Street
Neighborhood Center, with the City’s approval - and then, said County
Environmental Health Director Brian Cox, "They went off the radar."
A change in membership led to a change in practices; the group eventually moved
out of the Community Center and for a while, stopped serving on the Plaza. Cox
said, "The last inspection we did was in 1998, at 14th and D. The last
permit we issued was in February of 2000. And that was it. Our files fall quiet."
Permits and inspections
Under the state and county public health and safety codes, all food vendors
must strictly abide by storage, preparation and handling guidelines, operating
under the license of a food service permit and subject to regular inspections.
According to Steve Gustafson, manager of the county Environmental Health Consumer
Protection Program, there are three levels of food service: at the simplest
level are unprepared fruits and snacks, followed by mid-level, minimal preparation
foods like popcorn, hot dogs and coffee, with full preparation meals at the
very top. Each level carries increasingly heavier oversight, from one to three
inspections per year, respectively, and increasingly higher permit costs. "It’s
based on the number of visits," Gustafson said. For a no-preparation outfit,
a permit costs $265 per year. Minimal prep carries a $386 bill, and full prep
In addition, setting up and maintaining a certified kitchen and food preparation
practices that will pass county inspection carries a hefty price tag of its
own, both in initial outlay and in continuing upkeep. Gustafson explained that
any food service organization must meet personal hygiene and cleanliness standards
with specific handwash stations, compartmentalized sinks and fully equipped
bathrooms with separate handwash stations. Sanitation of utensils, dispensers
and all other equipment must follow approved standards. And finally, food temperatures
must be consistently maintained at 41 degrees or colder, or at 140 degrees or
hotter with commercial refrigerators and stoves. "Between those two temperatures,
that’s where bacteria grown and thrive," Gustafson said. "It’s
what we call the ‘temperature danger zone.’"
It’s a tall order, and one that’s been daunting to more than one
budding restaurateur or vendor. It’s also an order that Food Not Bombs
remains unconcerned with.
‘We’re just sharing food with people’
After their brief hiatus, the group has reappeared on the Plaza, cooking now
in the kitchen of what one volunteer would only cautiously describe as "a
yellow house." Asked about permits, insurance and other official signs
of bureaucratic approval, FNB volunteers were skeptical.
"We’re not making money with this," said Miguel. "We’re
just sharing food with people."
Another FNB volunteer, Christine, added, "The food’s great. But
people have a choice to eat here. If they don’t feel safe about it, they
don’t have to eat it."
Gustafson didn’t quibble with the group’s goal of feeding the hungry.
"I want food to get to those people," he said. "Absolutely."
But, he added, "It’s frustrating to us to try to protect public health,
in the face of providing a much-needed service - and I do think it is a good
intention, an important service. But they are quick to thumb their noses at
Cox pointed out that the regulations are in place for a reason. "The thing
is, we don’t know how they’re preparing food or if they’re
complying with health and safety standards," he said. As is the case for
every food service group, he noted, the food needs to come from an appropriate
source. "Food coming from someone’s house is not an appropriate source,"
he said. "It’s just not appropriate to put someone’s health
Failure to comply with Health and Safety Code requirements is a misdemeanor,
and, at least in theory, could carry a fine and jail time.
Christine rebutted the notion that FNB’s food is not prepared appropriately,
describing the handling, cooking and cleaning process as matters of "common
sense." "We’re not doing anything different than you would do
at home," she said. "It’s just a larger quantity." Because
the fare is vegetarian, there’s no problem of cross contamination or other
meat-related concerns, she added.
A recent FNB menu offered veggie stew, split peas and sautéed vegetables
and an apple crisp-bread pudding dessert. The Arcata Endeavor, local grocery
stores, farmers and individuals donate food regularly to the group. "There’s
a whole lot of food that gets wasted all over town," Miguel said. "Even
we end up with extra sometimes that we have to compost."
FNB accepts all donations, but particularly needs dry goods, condiments and
oil, utensils, plates, serving containers and stainless steel cooking pots.
A county issue
With money for litigation adventures nonexistent, the City and county are so
far turning a blind eye to the FNB operation. City Manager Dan Hauser said,
"The council has not given me any direction on this issue." His personal
opinion on the subject, however, is that it’s outside of the City’s
mandate. "We don’t get involved when the Health Department cites
a restaurant and in the same way, this is beyond our capacity to get involved,"
Police Chief Randy Mendosa also took a non-committal stance. "It’s
a county issue," he stated simply. "We’ve got enough crime going
to keep us busy without taking on any county issues."
Neither Cox nor Gustafson gave any indication of county plans to tackle the
And FNB is still serving, feeding varying numbers of the houseless and poor
three and sometimes four nights a week. "I tend not to worry about things
until they happen," said FNB volunteer Woody. "We’re just having
a picnic out there, sharing food with our friends."
The Arcata Endeavor is closed on weekends, and its Executive Director Sandi
Paris praised FNB’s ability to feed people in the Endeavor’s stead.
"That can’t be a bad thing," she said. Though she described
herself as unfamiliar with the membership and organization of Food Not Bombs,
she supported their philosophy. "The value behind it is wonderful,"