This year marks the 35th anniversary for the all-volunteer, nonprofit free-meal service Food Not Bombs.

What began with eight activists in Cambridge, Massachusetts feeding the homeless in 1981 has grown into a global movement with thousands of chapters.

In 1986, Keith McHenry and his wife moved to San Francisco, where he organized the first West Coast chapter. However, the liberal sanctuary didn’t live up to its reputation, and FNB soon met its first snag in a long line of legal troubles.

“On Aug. 15, 1988, 45 riot police arrested me and eight other people in front of Golden Gate Park just for serving free food,” he recalls.

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Although FNB wasn’t established until 1981, the idea was conceived on May 24, 1980, when Brian Feigenbaum—one of the original eight—was arrested for protesting the Seabrook Nuclear Station in New Hampshire. Feigenbaum’s friends immediately threw bake sales to help him raise bail and legal fees. From the very beginning, the activists wanted to engage the public through information and street performance.  

“Back then, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom had a poster that read, ‘Wouldn’t it be a beautiful day if the schools had all the money they needed and the Air Force had to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber?’” says McHenry. “So we decided to buy some military uniforms and told people we were trying to buy a bomber.”

“We have three principles,” says McHenry. “The food—which is always vegan or vegetarian—is free to anyone without restriction: rich or poor, stoned or sober. There is no central location or leaders, so each chapter is autonomous, and we’re dedicated to nonviolent social change. We’re not a charity, we’re seeking to transform our society so nobody has to live outside of it.”

Today, the Santa Cruz chapter—founded in 1992—continues to serve free meals at the downtown post office from 4-6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

“On Saturdays, you’re guaranteed a hot meal,” explains volunteer Abbi Samuels. “On Sundays, we combine with different groups, so it’s more of a potluck.”

At 7 p.m. this Sunday, FNB will protest Santa Cruz’s sleeping ban, along with the homeless shelter’s loss of funding, followed by a camp-out at the steps of City Hall.

“For anyone in Santa Cruz who has negative feelings toward the homeless, my wish is for them to spend two hours out here, because they might leave with a different perspective,” says Samuels.


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