Food Not Bombs Still Serving on Public Square

by Pamela Vincent

      “Get a picture of this wonderful fruit salad”, Ian Charnas directs me as I peer down into a large cooler filled with diced-up fresh fruit. As I snap off a few pictures he spoons out a hefty portion onto the plate of a hungry diner. On the other side of him is a pot of hot vegetable soup, the aroma wafting up through the group waiting to be served. We are not at some fancy restaurant and Ian is not a waiter…he’s a volunteer with the local chapter of Food Not Bombs (FNB) and we are outside, in downtown Cleveland, on Public Square on a hot and muggy Sunday afternoon. 

      Food Not Bombs is an organization with around 300 chapters nationwide who are dedicated to ending hunger in the world. The first chapter began in Boston in 1980 and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The great thing about the group is that it doesn’t just feed poor and hungry people; since its volunteers usually have low incomes themselves; they sit down and share their meals with the people whom they serve.

      Even though it’s hot outside on this Sunday afternoon, everyone is glad to be there. Not too long ago the City of Cleveland Mayor’s office wanted the group to relocate. Headed up by Craig Tame, the city’s Chief Health and Public Safety Officer, they considered the FNB’s group a blemish on the Public Square site, stating that the businesses in Tower City were complaining about homeless people using their restrooms and leaving garbage outside after the meals were served. Ian can’t speak for the homeless people using the restrooms but he says he and the rest of the volunteers personally clean up the site before they leave the area, and often leave it in better shape than they find it. FNB did not want to relocate to the proposed new site at 18th and Superior (the basement of a church). The Public Square site is easier for homeless and poor people to get to, and they’ve been relying on the delicious vegetarian meals every Sunday there for the past nine years.

      Undaunted, the volunteers for FNB started a campaign to save their meal site and sent out press releases and flyers stating their case to the public. Charnas had a lengthy conversation with Tame, and since then the City backed down and has not bothered the group. Needless to say the group is relieved, and has stepped up their efforts to feed homeless and poor people by raising funds to add another day to their meal service. Starting in August they plan to serve a 2nd meal on Tuesdays at Public Square.

      In the early days of the Cleveland chapter, the volunteers would take turns cooking in their own homes using old donated pots and pans. Recently they been using the kitchen at the Cleveland Food Co-Op at Euclid and E. 117th street and have acquired a second set of cookware to help prepare the 400 some pounds of food they serve each week. They serve all vegetarian meals and Charnas proudly claims the food is “the tastiest of all the FNB chapters.”

      The volunteers gather the food each week from various stores, bakeries and markets that would otherwise discard the food. In addition, the volunteers collect and hand out toiletries, feminine hygiene and health care items where needed. Currently there are 39 active volunteers in the local chapter but they have around 72 people on the collective list of those who’ve volunteered in the past. The volunteers of Food Not Bombs are very passionate and committed to their mission of ending world hunger. Lynn, a 25 year-old mother from Lakewood, has been a volunteer since she was 14 years old. This is the 3rd chapter with which she’s been affiliated, and she volunteers because she believes that “food is a right, not something you should have to pay for.” She feels that “starvation and poverty are a form of violence and they are a non-violent and non-discriminating group.”  Ian Charnas expresses similar thoughts and adds that “he doesn’t volunteer out of guilt. 

      This is not something I do one day a week and then I’ve done my part,” he emphasizes. “All the food that we collect is only 1/10 of the food that is thrown away by local merchants and grocery stores, food that would otherwise spoil from not being sold. . . We could be doing so much more if we had the resources and participation to handle it.” 

      He then gives whips out a startling statistic: in 2003, $4.2 billion were allotted for food stamps, and other federally subsidized food programs. In comparison the military weapons program was allotted $600 billion! The $4.2 billion for food programs are around 1% of the defense budget. That’s why they say: “Food, NOT Bombs!”

      The philosophy of Food Not Bombs is simply stated in a poem on their website: www.clevelandfoodnotbombs.org 

      WE ACT… BECAUSE FOOD IS A RIGHT NOT A PRIVILELGE! BECAUSE THERE IS ENOUGH FOOD FOR EVERYONE! BECAUSE SCARCITY IS A LIE! BECAUSE FOOD GROWS ON TREES! BECAUSE POVERTY IS VIOLENCEUNECESSARY AND UNNATURAL! BECAUSE CAPITALISM MAKES FOOD A SOURCE OF PROFIT NOT A SOURCE OF NUTRITION! BECAUSE WE NEED COMMUNITY NOT CONTROL! BECAUSE WE NEED GARDENS NOT LAWNS! BECAUSE WE NEED HOMES NOT JAILS! BECAUSE WE NEED FOOD NOT BOMBS!

      They cook every Sunday at 1:00 p.m. and serve the food between 4:30/5:00 p.m. until 7:00p.m., or until the food is gone. They usually set up on he south west side of Public Square.

Editor’s Note: If you are interested in volunteering or donating any items, please contact the group at veggies@clevelandfoodnotbombs.org, or call: Rotten Radish @ 216-402-4994 or Josh Soybottom @ 216-308-1612 or The Tower @ 216-939-9246 After this was published, the Food Not Bombs volunteers called to say that they will not be adding a Tuesday meal as reported in this article.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 72 August 2005 Cleveland, Ohio.