Mad River Union
ARCATA – It’s a weary group of hungry folks who wait most Sunday evenings, collected loosely around the
Arcata Plaza benches and grass. They tell stories of their travels, share an illegal cigarette and most of all, ask the universal question: What’s for dinner?
Sure enough dinner arrives, a little late, by means of a few energetic volunteers pulling a bike wagon. It’s lentil stew and a fresh green salad, and everyone is happy about it.
The volunteers are part of Food Not Bombs (FNB), an activist group that has been cooking up vegan meals from food donated by farmers, grocery stores and willing community members, and serving it free to the public since the 1980s. With its origins in Cambridge, Mass., the movement has expanded into an international standard for fighting poverty, hunger and food waste ever since.
Randal McMurphy, or “Redbeard,” as his friends know him, said some travelers sometimes end up eating out of garbage cans when they don’t have access to a community with a FNB chapter. Though he curtly denied dependence on the movement, McMurphy said not all are as lucky. “There are a lotta wingnuts that don’t know how to ask for food, and [FNB volunteers] help them,” McMurphy said. “If they’re not feeding, you go somewhere else. You gotta eat. And it’s getting dark.”
In 1994, the City of Arcata filed a lawsuit against Food Not Bombs for what the city deemed improper food handling and inappropriate public behavior. Unlike commercial food dispensers, FNB members had no food safety training, nor the insurance required of restaurants and food carts.
Court records chronicle numerous interactions between law enforcement and FNB volunteers, mostly ending unproductively with a ripped-up copy of the city’s regulations and the implication of a repeat offense. By 1998, FNB agreed to get a permit, generally priced between $250 and $500 depending on the level of preparation covered, and served from the approved D Street Neighborhood Center kitchen with regular inspections.
Fast forward to today, FNB volunteers continue to serve on city property without the required permits, which must be renewed regularly to remain valid. According to the Department of Health, the last known permit was issued in early 2000. In lieu of the D Street Center, meals today are prepared at volunteers’ homes, including some rented out by college students attending Humboldt State University, which are a large share of the kitchens used during the school year. Dubbed colorful names like The Womb, The Dahmma Pad and The Rabbit Hole, the kitchens exist ambiguously and rotate by availability and season.
Nikko Turrietta, a lanky 20-something year old with a few modest dreadlocks and personal experience with travel and hunger, volunteered with FNB through the summer of 2014. “I eat healthier because of it. Feeding people is an experience,” Turrietta said.
Meals are vegan to minimize the risk of cross contamination from meat and animal products, but if an occasional wheel of Cypress Grove cheese or carton of eggs make their way into the hands of volunteers, they’ll be served, separately, as optional additions.
Volunteer Kirsten Voxnaes, or “Peaches” as she is known among friends, explains that meals are usually trucked to the Plaza from kitchens by bicycle, and though occasional observation by Arcata Police officers does occur, the city seems to have turned a blind eye to the contemporary chapter’s serving. As if to highlight the slightly anarchic attitude of the movement, Voxnaes sums up the organization’s mantra. “Nobody runs it, we just do it,” she said.
Following persistent attempts to contact the city regarding its current relationship with the activist group, Interim City Manager Janet Luzzi responded. “There is no relationship,” said Luzzi. “No recent complaints have been filed,” regarding the group and as far as she knows, no pressing problem. “It’s a can of worms,” she said.
The program is consent-based, meaning that participation is never an obligation, explained volunteer Octavia Stremple, who has worked with the group for over a year and is currently the longest-standing member of the contemporary Arcata chapter. “We don’t make a big impact. We’re only there for a few hours. We clean up after ourselves. There are no dogs and no drugs. We’re not promoting aggression. I just don’t think we’re causing a problem.”
Regulations and enforcement aside, every Sunday the Food Not Bombs banner is hung, the Tupperware arranged in an orderly pile and the evening’s catch – beet soup, lentils, maybe even carrot salad – disappears into the bellies of Arcata’s hungry. “One time I was hungry, then I remembered, this is America, and there’s plenty of food,” McMurphy said. While Arcata’s Food Not Bombs’ future may be fuzzy, for now, they’ll serve.