Food Not Bombs, an organization marking its 40th anniversary in the spring of 2020, has been a source of free meals around the country and the world. The group was kicked off on the East Coast in 1980 by local activists who wanted to protest capitalism and its investment in the nuclear industry. The organization has since grown beyond the founders’ wildest dreams.
Food Not Bombs eschews a hierarchical organization structure in favor of a horizontal, autonomous model, where anyone can create their own local chapter and operate in a way that best serves the needs of their community. There are no formal titles within Food Not Bombs; everyone is simply a member. Many chapters provide meals on a weekly basis, though some chapters serve more or less frequently. Local chapters secure food donations from community members and businesses, and prepare the meals themselves, either in their own homes or in donated kitchen space.
Food Not Bombs cofounder Keith McHenry tells Teen Vogue that in his early 20s, he was inspired by his history professor, A People’s History of the United States author Howard Zinn, to get involved with protests against New Hampshire’s Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant. After an associate was arrested during an anti-Seabrook protest in May 1980, McHenry and friends put on a bake sale to raise money for his legal defense, planting the seeds for what would become Food Not Bombs.
But the organization truly took root in Boston, where the group protested against newly elected president Ronald Reagan’s policies of slashing of social services in favor of increasing the military budget.
In March 1981, the members of Food Not Bombs hatched a plan to stage a piece of political street theater in Boston, recruiting other activists to dress as hoboes and stand in line outside a shareholders meeting of the Bank of Boston, as if waiting outside a soup kitchen. McHenry said this meeting was targeted because the group says some members of the bank’s board were also on the boards of weapons manufacturing companies.
But Food Not Bombs decided they could both make a statement and actually feed people in need during the protest. So the activists prepared a meal, and McHenry visited a local soup kitchen the night before the demonstration, where he gave a speech and invited people to join the protest and be fed. This protest was an early iteration of the kind of mutual aid the group would go on to provide.
During this time, McHenry was working in the produce section at a grocery co-op, where, to his dismay, he often had to throw away perfectly good organic fruits and vegetables. He instead started bringing the fresh goods to residents of a nearby housing project. Not far away from the project, McHenry soon learned, was a laboratory where scientists were designing nuclear guiding systems for Reagan’s “Star Wars” program. A deep-seated opposition to the U.S. nuclear program being expanded in their own backyard helped the organization came up with the name Food Not Bombs, McHenry tells Teen Vogue. The name reflects the group’s work to resist the military industrial complex by providing mutual aid in the form of free meals.
What began as a bake sale and a small protest in Boston grew into a multi-chapter organization after McHenry traveled to San Francisco to start a chapter there in 1988. Food Not Bombs volunteers served free meals at Golden Gate Park, where a lot of homeless people and other community members often hung out.