In September 2007 the city commission of West Palm Beach, Florida passed an ordinance prohibiting the distribution of free food in Centennial Park in front of the public library. The ordinance directly targeted Food Not Bombs (FNB), which serves vegetarian meals every Saturday afternoon, and Art and Compassion, a religious group which also serves free food and preaches to the homeless every Wednesday night. The reason? Like other ordinances and laws targeting homeless advocates across the nation, business owners and affluent residents want the homeless out of sight, even if that means banning public feedings in public places. The city’s motivation for the ordinance is evident from Mayor Lois Frankel’s recent statement that the groups "decided it’s their right to destroy West Palm Beach’s downtown commerce."
Food Not Bombs and Art and Compassion sued the city in December 2007, claiming the ordinance violated their constitutional right of freedom of speech and assembly. The city decided not to enforce the law until the lawsuit was over so feedings continued.
Finally, on December 3, 2008, an attorney told a federal judge that the city commission had decided to repeal the ordinance and settle with the groups, agreeing to pay them $100,000 in legal fees.
FNB is an international movement made up of autonomous all-volunteer collectives that was started in the early 1980s in Cambridge, Massachusetts by anti-nuclear activists protesting the Seabrook nuclear power plant. FNB operates under the idea that food is a right, not a privilege, and that the fact that there is so much hunger amid so much wealth is testament to our society’s misallocation of resources and inequality. Currently, there are over 400 active chapters, half of which are outside of the United States. Groups collect food that would otherwise go to waste and serve vegetarian meals in public places.
With the recent economic crisis, homelessness has already shot up, evidenced by many cities’ downtown areas, and is expected to increase further. Groups like Food Not Bombs are sometimes people’s only systems of support, as many cities have no programs for feeding and housing the homeless, in spite of the fact that vast amounts of food are wasted. On May 14, 2008, the United Nations published a report that estimated that American consumers and retailers throw away $48 billion worth of food. Timothy Jones, an archeologist at the University of Arizona, puts the figure at around $100 billion.
In recent years, FNB groups have been involved in the anti-globalization and anti-war movements and feeding protesters at large demonstrations. As a consequence, FNB has been targeted by several local governments in San Francisco, Denver, Las Vegas, and elsewhere. Food Not Bombs has even been investigated by the FBI for alleged terrorist connections.
The December 3 settlement came after failed efforts by other Florida cities to shut down FNB chapters. On April 4, 2007, Eric Montanez of Orlando FNB was arrested for serving free food after the city passed an ordinance outlawing "large group feedings." Montanez was acquitted in October 2007 and in September 2008 a federal judge struck down the Orlando ordinance after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the city on behalf of several groups. The judge’s ruling stated that the ordinance violated the plaintiffs’ right to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech.
In July 2007, authorities also tried to ban Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs from feeding people at Stranahan Park in front of the main public library. This attempt was based on a law prohibiting "social service purposes" in parks without a written agreement from the city. Volunteers were threatened with arrest if they did not leave the park. But after an outpouring of community support and media attention the following week, the city backed down and even denied trying to shut down FNB.
The latest settlement follows a Palm Beach county commission’s adoption of a ten-year plan to end homelessness, which will call for two homeless assessment centers, including one in West Palm Beach, something that even County Commission chair Jeff Koons agrees is long overdue. Considering the city’s very recent anti-homeless attitude, many doubt the county’s commitment to the plan. Miami-Dade and Broward County to the south built homeless shelters years ago, but only after a landmark lawsuit that prohibited police from arresting the homeless for such things as sleeping outside if no shelter was available. Food Not Bombs attorney Barry Silver has said that such a lawsuit may be necessary to spur the county and city into action.
FNB’s struggles aren’t over. On December 15, after the city commission officially and unanimously rescinded the anti-feeding ordinance, it included in its wording that the city and the groups would work together to find an "alternative location" for the feedings, something that was not part of the original agreement, proving that city officials and their business supporters still harbor deep anti-homeless sentiments. Still, Food not Bombs won a victory against another uncaring anti-homeless law and proved that no government can prevent them from delivering their message that food is a right, not a privilege.
Gonzalo Vizcardo is involved with Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach Food Not Bombs. Vizcardo, a Venezuelan, is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Miami.