[Hpn] "Curry Duty: Food Not Bombs Cooks Up A Revolution"
Mon, 29 Jan 2001 12:20:11 -0500
Here's an article that was published today in the Cleveland Scene on the
local Food Not Bombs chapter.
Food Not Bombs cooks up a revolution.
By Laura Putre
The ambiance was noteworthy. Equal parts labor temple, living room, and
dive. But the cuisine was a call to action.
Fashioned from the finest vegetarian leftovers gathered from nearby
dumpsters and grocers, it gave the guests an altruistic flush. Inspired,
they spoke of anarchy, workers' rights, and tofu being the other white
meat. They wanted to break down the barriers between the haves and have-nots.
So went the first meeting of Cleveland's Food Not Bombs. Of course, some
had good intentions, but didn't follow through. The rest formed a loose
crew that has shown up on Public Square every Sunday since 1995 with a free
vegetarian meal for the masses. They share the food with the homeless and
whoever else happens by. The feasts are meant as a catalyst for community,
a bright spot of spontaneity and camaraderie after a full week of being
"circulated through the system."
"From the start, we wanted to find ways to build communication between
people who were bringing the food down and people who were eating the
food," says Dan Kerr, one of the founders. "We want to create networks
between homeless people."
A native Clevelander from a family of activists, Kerr learned the art of
dumpster-diving at the feet of a man actually named Dumpster, then spent a
few years helping run a soup kitchen in a New York homeless encampment.
Returning to Cleveland for graduate school, he met up with some like minds.
A talkative, teacherly sort who regularly stops by the shelters, Kerr is
fond of terms like "the philanthropic Mafia" and "the institutionalization
of poverty." The homeless get enough structure sleeping in a gym with 400
other people or being served slop in an assembly line, he reasons. The Food
Not Bombs gatherings are a break from that. The Sunday meal is self-serve,
so everyone -- homeless and non-homeless -- is on equal footing.
Nationally, Food Not Bombs originated in early 1980s Boston, when some
anarchist thespians planned to distribute food to actors playing homeless
people in their antiwar street play, but soon found they didn't need
actors. Real homeless people were eating their props, so they scrapped the
symbolism and focused on feeding the poor.
Unassuming yet intellectual, Cleveland's Food Not Bombs is a youthful
assemblage that's distinguished visually by demure piercings and olive
drab. Rather than lead protests, they prefer to help the homeless organize
their own, like the tent city set up on the Square in response to Mayor
Mike White's 1999 homeless sweeps. They're progressive in their politics,
but they don't rally around one banner, be it hippie, punk, or Wobbly. Some
want to Free Mumia; others align themselves with abortion rights,
environmental activism, or labor unions for low-wage workers.
"We've all reached a flexible understanding," Kerr says. "Even the people
really into vegetarianism tend not to be hardcore about it. Last week, for
example, someone brought down a bunch of ham and lunchmeat. And this other
guy shows up with beef and noodles and fried chicken. So we just said,
'That group over there is called Ham Not Bombs and that group is called
Chicken Not Bombs and Beef and Noodles Not Bombs.' There's a lot of joking
"A lot of curry jokes," adds Chris Dole, who's been with the Cleveland
contingent since day one.
In the early days, the group's Sunday cooking sessions, where new and old
business is discussed over potato peelings, were much more intense. "We
used to spend, God, 8 hours, 16 hours just preparing food," Dole says.
"We'd have these bell peppers stuffed with rice and tofu. Eight courses.
Candied yams. But it was getting really frustrating. By the time you got
all this food and got downtown, you'd be too burned out to do anything."
Sometimes, just scavenging the ingredients would fritter away a whole
Saturday, says Kerr. They'd drive all over town, filling up four cars and a
van. "Then we'd have to sort through it all."
The West Side Market was a particular ordeal, with its
take-two-cases-of-cabbages-or-nothing policy. "I remember this one time,
this guy had a whole truck full of raspberries," says Kerr. "'Here, you can
take this whole truck full.' But the problem was, there would be some that
were moldy. And you'd have to sort through all this stuff!" So they
politely declined. Now, rather than scour all of Greater Cleveland, they
stick to a few tried-and-true sites.
Lately, they've been cooking at a Slavic Village kitchen, where protest
posters are more plentiful than pan lids. On a recent Sunday, a few
no-shows have the group running behind. As for the "shows," some are new
and not real handy with a paring knife -- the Anarchist's Cookbook
apparently didn't cover that.
Luckily, two old-timers arrive, offer a crash course in vegetable chopping,
and toss out the slimy asparagus and the case of soy milk that expired a
As kale, radishes, and eggplant are sliced for stew, talk turns to
love-hate relationships with cilantro (five people love it; one guy thinks
it tastes like oven cleaner) and the excruciating boringness of spending
nine hours in a car with workers from a revolutionary bookstore who
restrict their conversation to The Revolution.
At first, Food Not Bombers were apprehensive about serving food without a
permit in Public Square. In late-1980s San Francisco, people were arrested
for such "crimes," to much public outcry. But here, they've been left alone.
"The politicians here knew what was going on in other cities," says Kerr.
"To Mayor White's credit, he has more or less let us distribute food. I
think that was very smart."
But things got tense when Kerr and Dole decided to add a microphone and a
couple of amps to the downtown feast, so the homeless people could try some
"old-time soapboxing." The homeless were well behaved, but a couple of kids
who monopolized the mic for three hours during All-Star Weekend 1997 weren't.
"They started singing about how they were gonna kill the cops with their
Glocks and how they were gonna smoke a blunt," recalls Kerr. "That was when
the cops came" and pulled the plug.
Kerr and Dole then decided to try the airwaves. Both Case Western Reserve
graduate students, they now host Frost Radio, Greater Cleveland's
unofficial antidote to Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura, on WRUW-FM.
The weekly talk show, which airs on Tuesdays at 11 a.m., features homeless
guests discussing life on the streets of Cleveland. Recent topics included
the staleness of sandwiches distributed by a Christian group, why homeless
men and women who are sleeping together aren't necessarily having sex, and
a lively reminiscence of a bus full of poor people crashing a country club.
Dave Campbell, the self-proclaimed President of the Homeless and a frequent
guest on the show, came up with the moniker. "Because frost covers
everything," he enthuses. "Frost makes things crystal clear."
At the Sunday meal, Campbell plants his black flag in a conspicuous corner
of the square, then helps himself to vegetarian spaghetti. Two women,
hunched over beyond their years, rummage through the pile of bagels donated
by a local bakery. A man wrapped in an afghan asks for a hot dog, but
settles for some soup.
Ralph Pack, a pensive elder in a pea coat, hails from the Depression-era
hobo school of homelessness. A former petty crook, he used to room in the
$5-a-night flophouses that dotted the near East Side 20 years ago, and he
laments the high rents now. He's been coming to the Food Not Bombs meals
for several years, calling them "a fulcrum for activists of all types."
"Something even more important than the food, it gives us all a place to
network and make plans about getting more shelters, more food. This is the
only way to get the word out [to the non-homeless] that these last few
years have been a horrifying time" for finding cheap housing. Temp agencies
routinely recruit in homeless shelters, he says, paying wages below
subsistence levels, so workers stay dependent on shelters.
Adrian Williams hopes to get his own place soon. But then he might not be
able to afford food, so he'll still come to Food Not Bombs. "Some come all
the time, some come sometimes," he says of the gatherings. "You got those
who last a year or two, you got those who go on forever. I met people who
are homeless for a week or two, a year. Next thing you know, they're right
back in the midst of society. Then I met some who've been homeless for 13,
14 years. But everybody who comes here, I'm sure they all appreciate it."
Their stomachs won't be filled for the whole week, but maybe their souls will