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Make food, not war: Food Not Bombs collective nourishes Boston

Posted by Alex Pearlman  January 28, 2012 09:49 AM

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food not bombs.pngBy Tzivia Halperin

When Sarah McMullen opened the door to her apartment -- home to a 12-person collective that cooks and serves food as part of the global Food Not Bombs network -- I was greeted by three things: an amiable face, a rambunctious golden doodle who nearly bowled me over, and the pungent aroma of fresh vegetables and herbs.

"You hungry?" McMullen asked, ladling homemade miso soup into a bowl brimming with tofu and what looked like kale. "How about some lavender tea?"

This "what's mine is yours" mentality speaks to the very principles of the Food Not Bombs organization. Founded in Cambridge in the 1980s by Keith McHenry and C.T. Lawrence (the former of whom McMullen lovingly referred to as a "wingnut"), Food Not Bombs seeks to distribute free vegetarian and vegan meals as a protest against poverty, hunger, and war. The organization believes that food should be a "right not a privilege," according to the website for the Boston/Cambridge chapter housed in the apartment.

In those 30-plus years, Food Not Bombs has flowered into 400 distinct chapters, each autonomous from the others and with varying philosophies and decision-making processes. But overall, the organization emphasizes "nonviolent principles" as a means to incite change, said Nat Jackson, another member of Boston/Cambridge chapter.

In support of their mission, Food Not Bombs receives donations of fresh vegetables from local, organic farms, in addition to other donations from the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee's food pantry; Food for Free, Cambridge's local food redistribution organization; and other sources. The collective often rescues bread and other pastries from dumpsters at different markets, including Whole Foods, but "it isn't viewed as legitimate to dumpster [dive] for that food, so mainly we get donations," said Jackson.

Once they collect each week's donations, the collective parcels through them, saving heartier vegetables and starches, such as potatoes and beets, for the winter. "We usually have stacks [of vegetables] this high," McMullen said, motioning far above her head to signify large stacks indeed. That much was clear: Tall stacks of black crates brimming with vegetables lined entire walls in the kitchen.

Every Friday, McMullen, Jackson, the collective's 10 other members, and a ranging number of volunteers cook that evening's meal at the apartment, then bike it over to Boston Common. Dinner is served from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and anyone, regardless of need, is welcome to share. Cleaning and hobnobbing back at the apartment follow this ritual, and they repeat the process on Sundays in Central Square.

Beyond merely providing free, healthy, sustainable meals, McMullen said that many Food Not Bombs volunteers are "politically motivated," and as an autonomous chapter, each person has the ability to make decisions about what groups they would like to support. For example, Food Not Bombs fed Occupy Boston campers at Dewey Square and served free food during Davis Square's annual HONK! Festival.

It was clear even in my interactions with McMullen -- who used the free time she had after being laid off from work last fall to explore Food Not Bombs and "just kept going back," she said -- that general sustainability and consciousness are integral aspects of the collective's members' everyday lives. McMullen said she sometimes dumpster dives for "fresh foods, sweets, and packaged foods" in addition to what she gets from Food Not Bombs. "If I didn't go out to eat, I wouldn't spend money [on food] at all," she said.

The collective cooks food in large batches to share, thus wasting less energy compared to cooking smaller meals more frequently. And beyond merely being aware of food consumption, the collective focuses on energy conservation in terms of the amount of water they use, the products they use, and the decision to use bikes as opposed to other, less conscious modes of transportation. For those living in the Food Not Bombs apartment -- and by extrapolation, perhaps all those involved with Food Not Bombs -- their lifestyle expresses a greater awareness of the effect they have on the environment and their fellow human beings.

Despite their clear strides towards environmental consciousness and efforts in reducing hunger, McMullen noted a reactional paradox: During the spring and summer, for example, when the collective distributes excess vegetables around the neighborhood, "some people were really, really grateful," while others were staunchly "skeptical," she said. Regardless of varying interpretations of their endeavors, those involved with Food Not Bombs can only be considered forward thinking.

Food Not Bombs is always looking for volunteers. If you're interested, you can reach the Boston/Cambridge chapter at

About Tzivia -- I'm currently studying nonfiction writing at Emerson College with a double minor in photography and psychology. Coalescing them, my time is really spent thinking about humans, talking to humans, writing about humans, and rendering humans. Besides photography and writing, my interests include and are pretty much limited to mocking Kevin Bacon and pretending to be a 65-year-old smoker from Brooklyn. Find me on Twitter at @Tzivia_Halperin.

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