Keith McHenry, Food Not Bombs cofounder
Artist and author Keith McHenry helped start Food Not Bombs in Massachusetts in 1980. He has recovered, cooked and shared vegan food with the hungry for over 30 years. Keith has been arrested nearly 100 times for his efforts, spending over 500 nights in jail and at one point faced 25 to life in prison.
He co-authored “Food Not Bombs How to feed the hungry and build community” and wrote and illustrated “Hungry for Peace – How you can help end poverty and war with Food Not Bombs.”
Keith has traveled all over the world, speaking at colleges, books stores and cafes. While on tour he joins local Food Not Bombs activists helping them prepare and sharing free vegan meals with the public. He also helps coordinate logistics for the Food Not Bombs movement which is active in over 1,000 cities around the world.
When he isn’t on the road Keith lives with his partner Abbi Samuels in Santa Cruz, California and Taos, New Mexico.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, I’m back. This is Caryn Hartglass and we’re right in the middle of the program It’s All About Food. It’s really funny to hear those commercial breaks when you hear your own voice. It’s like “wait a minute, that’s me, but I’m here, no I’m there”. Shall we talk some more about food, my favorite subject? At the beginning of the program I was talking about the World’s Fair and I want to talk a little more about that before we move on to the next guest. When I was a kid and I went to the World’s Fair, it was a spectacular thing and one of the things that I loved was the Ferris wheel. There was the U.S. Tire, which is now Uniroyal, had a big Ferris wheel. There was this replica, it was a toy, that you could buy and I so wanted that little replica, that little Ferris wheel toy and I didn’t get it. Going back to visit the anniversary festival this weekend they had—at the Queen’s Museum—all kinds of things from the original fair. They had that little replica Ferris wheel behind the glass along with a lot of other things and I looked at it and it was nothing. I just kept thinking, I couldn’t believe, that I coveted this thing so intensely but I was six at the time. But looking at it, seeing how nothing it is, it made me laugh. It made me think about so many things. The way we perceive things, either as children or adults, something having power or being so magical when really it’s just something we’re creating in our heads. We have a lot of power in our heads and we should be doing good things with them. Anyway, it was fun to see.
So, let’s talk about food, shall we? I’ll bring on my next guest Keith McHenry. He’s an artist, an author and helped start Food Not Bombs in Massachusetts in 1980. He has recovered, cooked and shared vegan food with the hungry for over thirty years. Keith has been arrested nearly 100 times for his efforts, spending over 500 nights in jail and at one point faced 25 to life in prison. He co-authored Food Not Bombs, How to Feed the Hungry and Build Community and wrote and illustrated Hungry For Peace, How You Can Help End Poverty and War With Food, Not Bombs. Keith, welcome to It’s All About Food.
Keith McHenry: Thanks for having me. It’s exciting.
Caryn Hartglass: You are so exciting. You have been doing such great work for so long. How do you do it?
Keith McHenry: Well, you just have to wake up every morning and go find some food and cook it. That’s basically it. There’s no problem finding people that need food. The biggest kind of crazy thing has been that it’s vegan food and to watch this coming Saturday, the 24th of May is the 34th anniversary of the founding of Food Not Bombs. At the beginning people had no idea what vegan and vegetarian food was and now, actually people who aren’t even vegan are excited to come eat our food because they know it’s organic whole foods and makes them feel a lot better. So even though they might be eating at Burger King and McDonald’s some time during the week we hear from more and more people that they really appreciate our food even though it doesn’t have meat.
Caryn Hartglass: Let’s just talk about the title to begin with—Food Not Bombs—it’s pretty self explanatory but I imagine, especially now with our phones being tapped and all kinds of undercover work, anything that has the word “bombs” in it is going to be looked at kind of questionably. Do you have problems with the name at all?
Keith McHenry: The name has caused some problems over the decades. We discovered not long after we were first arrested for feeding the hungry in Golden Gate Park in August of 1988 that we’d been declared one of America’s most hardcore terrorist groups. We learned that that Thanksgiving weekend it turned out the National Guard Armories all around the country at a workshop on domestic terrorism which featured our logo and we know that because National Guard personnel returning home for the weekend would approach our volunteers or just people who had happened to have purchased Food Not Bombs button and had it on their coat and said “oh wow we just studied them in American Terrorism class and their America’s most hardcore terrorist group”. Most recently in April of 2009 on C-SPAN I happened to catch this, actually twice, where a state department official compared Foods Not Bombs to Al Qaeda, who is more dangerous Al Qaeda or Food Not Bombs. Their conclusion was that we were more dangerous because people liked us, we’re friendly, people enjoyed the food and it was a threat because Americans might think money should be diverted from military spending towards things like education, healthcare, stuff like that.
Caryn Hartglass: I was wondering what they were worried about. I see now, so they think that you might take money away from the defense and put it towards healthier food and healthcare. What a concept.
Keith McHenry: Yes. When I saw the lecture on C-SPAN when I was speaking at Princeton…after my lecture at Princeton…then I went to speak at Harvard Law a couple of days later I saw it again. If I hadn’t seen it again I would have thought I hallucinated the entire program. Apparently it’s just that simple. That they are concerned that the American people will come across a Food Not Bombs table and see all the people coming to eat and then start talking to us, see the sign saying “food not bombs” and then low and behold we end up convincing them that they should organize…when a congressional candidate comes up for re-election or something and says I’m going to fund Social Security or I’m going to fund housing or I’m going to fund SNAP or WIC or something like that, that they will do it. Then, oh my goodness, there’s another billion dollars gone from building drones or this whole thing that Chuck Hagel’s been talking about—38 billion dollars to upgrade nuclear weapons arsenal. Until the Ukranian crisis it didn’t seem likely that we’d be at war with Russia again. Maybe that’s part of the war in Russia theory, to scare the American public into spending money on more bombs.
Caryn Hartglass: It may sound simple but if we could make sure every person on this planet was well-fed we wouldn’t see the majority of problems that we see on the planet today.
Keith McHenry: That’s right. You would not be able to even recruit actual real terrorists to be terrorists if everybody had adequate nutrition and then security—just knowing that you will be able to eat. I was in Ethiopia a couple of years ago at both the first and the second Ethiopian Vegan Association Conference. There are at least two million people facing starvation right now and the crazy thing is that there’s an amazing amount of food being grown in Ethiopia. The Nile River is irrigating massive areas of crop land, beautiful produce, amazing amount of tulips that are grown for the European market by Dutch companies. So with all this food being exported out of Ethiopia while two million people are facing starvation. This is very common with famine, where there is adequate food, local food is being diverted from the people living there. It’s all about lack of democracy and about profit. Now, for instance, with Africa with mass starvation all across the continent huge amounts of land are cultivated. It’s an amazingly fertile agricultural continent but that food now is being controlled by European or Chinese or Saudi, Bahrainian, the Middle Eastern kingdoms and so on, they are diverting food to their markets and they’re controlling agriculture and the only people profiting in Africa from all this is the rulers in these countries and some of the wealthy land owners. Another example was in Nigeria, and who was providing the food to Sudan during that famine was Nigeria. By selling oil to the rest of the world, using that money to buy their own food and then shipping it to Sudan. I talked to the Minister of Security a couple of times when I was visiting and they said it’s not because we’re altruistic we just don’t want like five million people from Sudan crossing into our country at this point we’re going to have problems. And now with Boko Haram and all that you can see that their point might be well taken, to manipulate events in their own favor so food is a weapon from way back and that I think is a large…. In the Food Not Bombs when governments try to stop us and that’s because they know we give out food without restriction to anyone that wants it.
Caryn Hartglass: Food is a weapon. Food can be used as a weapon.
Keith McHenry: Yes. There is evidence of Hitler using the withholding of food and the rewarding of food to manipulate events leading up and during World War II.
Caryn Hartglass: Let’s talk about when you do try and feed people who need food. I understand there are different places in the country that don’t allow your group or people in general to feed people who need food.
Keith McHenry: Right now there’s roughly over 50 cities that have actually banned or limited the distribution of free food in public and it’s not limited to Food Not Bombs but frequently Food Not Bombs is the target of these actions. There’s been over a thousand arrests of Food Not Bombs volunteers starting on August 15th 1988 in San Francisco. More recently we’ve seen new restrictions in Columbia South Carolina where they are demanding we pay $125 a week for a permit…we have to apply for a permit every week to share food there. We’ve been sharing food there for decades. Other cities like Orlando create a law that you can only share food twice a year in the park and have to apply for a permit and have to move around to 46 different parks. We were sharing and still do share twice a week in Orlando. They were making it so that each week you would have to get a permit, you could only share in that park for that week then you had to move to another park. Many of the parks actually had no access to anybody…to public transportation or things…there was no way anybody would ever be able to get to the parks to eat. They’d have to walk through people’s backyards.
Caryn Hartglass: So what do you think the purpose of the permit is in some of these places. What is that going to do, in their minds?
Keith McHenry: What my experience with permits are is that they have the permits so they can withdraw the permits and that’s what we saw in San Francisco. At first there was no permit required but the police arrested us for violating like a picnic ordinance or something. It wasn’t even clear what the actual rules of that law were. No one could really explain it. Police said that they were stopping us because we were making a political statement and that wasn’t allowed. It was like Park Code 7.03 you know that we were violating. Normally if you violate that you get a ticket for $25 but in their case they brought out 45 riot police and arrested 9 of us. By the end of the month they arrested a total of 94 people and then the mayor gave us a permit but then as soon as they wanted to get rid of us again they deleted the permit process. In the meantime they got a court order against us for sharing food without a permit and we got arrested for felony conspiracy to serve food in violation of a court order. So that seems to be what the point of the permit process is.
Caryn Hartglass: What are their fears of people giving homeless people or people who are hungry free food?
Keith McHenry: The issue for most of these…it turned out it really does come down to pressure by military contractors in many cases…and other large corporations who feel that money that would be going to them through government contracts and so on—might be diverted to things like education, healthcare. For instance people think of Orlando’s big industry is Disney World but actually the larger corporation that brings in as much money as Disney World is Lockheed Martin. We don’t have evidence that there was a direct conversation between the authorities in Orlando and Lockheed Martin but it’s a big military contracting area in Central Florida because of its connection to Cape Canaveral and all that. It’s just very interesting. Whenever you get a very repressive situation like San Francisco where we found out it was Bank of America, Bechtel Corporation and Chevron—people think of Chevron as an oil company we have to remember that half the oil that is used and sold in the United States is sold to the military. Compared to us driving around in cars…to have that one customer—the U.S. military—and then to have their tax base be threatened was apparently a threat. Raytheon Missile Systems, Grumman, General Electric—these are all companies who apparently feel threatened that their contracts with the military. They’re feeling that there’s only so much tax dollars to go around and they want to get the largest chunk of it. Right now in all of the military including paying soldiers and stuff, which is really minimum wage for enlisted people, comes to nearly half the federal budget. Some estimate that this year it was 60% of the federal income tax that people are paying is going just to service just the military either past wars or current.
Caryn Hartglass: I don’t like hearing that. I don’t like to know that. I like to know that but I don’t like to hear it. Tell me some good stories where Food Not Bombs came along and fed people and there was a happy ending.
Keith McHenry: Right now I’m at the Hope Connection in Santa Cruz California. The community has gotten this huge auditorium and put all these homeless services in there, including dental work, eye doctors, podiatrists, all this amazing stuff. So while I’m outside handing out this bread and organic produce that I received from local natural food stores here in Santa Cruz, we’ve been seeing all these people coming out saying “Oh we love Food Not Bombs,” “It’s just wonderful.” This is the thing, we’re in one thousand cities in the world. It’s all-volunteer, there’s no paid staff. We have a website foodnotbombs.net that we’re going to be upgrading shortly but it’s currently there. Turns out it was…I didn’t realize this but we started this website within the first twelve months of the first commercial websites in America, so it’s been up there since 95. You can connect with your local Food Not Bombs chapter there. We have a Hunger Hotline that’s a toll free number, 1-800-884-1136. We get calls all day from people seeking food. Then we have some other projects like relief work so we’re providing meals and solar power to charge cell phones and stuff. In the Philippines, even today, we’ve been doing since the typhoon hit. We provided meals in twenty cities in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas after Katrina. We were in New Orleans in several locations for over eight months. We did Sandy relief. We’ve done earthquake relief. We’re also gearing up to provide meals that protest this weekend against Monsanto and seeking seed sovereignty and food sovereignty, really trying to push the whole idea of organics and non-GMO and the idea that food is a right and not a privilege.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m glad you mentioned Monsanto just for a moment because I wanted to bring that up awhile back when you were talking about the lack of food distribution in Ethiopia and other places where there’s plenty of food but it’s not getting to the people who need it. Companies like Monsanto will use the excuse that they need to improve crops so that these people who are starving will have food to eat and that’s not the problem. The problem is poverty. The problem is lack of democracy. The problem is food distribution and using fertile soil for products that a small group of people benefit from by exporting most of the time rather than feeding the people who are working to grow the stuff. So GMOs is not the way to go. We just need better government, more democracy, more equality.
Keith McHenry: GMOs because of the intellectual property rights that are associated with the control of these seeds is actually the leading cause of hunger on earth right now. The reason being you see like for instance in India and many other countries like that where they sign on to the world trade organization agreements or have relationships with IMF World Bank and they are required to accept genetically modified seeds and chemicals. They finally go bankrupt so thousands and thousands of farmers in areas where we need more farmers not less farmers have gone bankrupt because they can’t save their own seeds by contract and they end up having to get loans to buy the seeds and chemicals and then less and less land gets cultivated and less and less farmers are farming because they’ve gone bankrupt. There’s like thousands of farmers in India, for example, that have committed suicide because of the stress of losing their land to foreclosure because they couldn’t afford to pay for the GMO products that they ended up agreeing to grow. Then you see the same thing happening in the United States, not so much the bankruptcy, but problems with cutworms that have now adapted to Bt corn. Now the farmer is out to spend even more money on chemicals to kill the cutworms to save their crops. As a result the margins are less and you see this horrible impact that genetically-modified foods are having on food. Then you have things like the dumping of GMO crops in places like Ethiopia. You have teff, for instance, one of the oldest grains in the world grown in Ethiopia being threatened by Monsanto and Gates Foundation and so on who are trying to basically gain control of food. As a result a lot of people say that the Arab Spring came about because Monsanto had doubled the price of their seeds and chemicals in the year before. Basic food things, particularly grains and flour, increase in price so dramatically the subsidized flour in places like Egypt and Tunisia just became out of reach for many people. They are paying half their total income just on food and that inspired so much frustration that it evolved into revolutions.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow, you never hear that in mainstream news.
Keith McHenry: Very rarely, you really have to dig for that. I just wrote a chapter in a book on vegan eating and so on and found a lot of information on that but you have to dig. It is in some mainstream things, usually Wall Street Journal in the back pages or something like that.
Caryn Hartglass: Keith, we’re at the end of the half hour. I wanted to thank you so much for joining me and you are doing great, great work. Keep going.
Keith McHenry: Thank you so much and I hope listeners get involved with their local Food Not Bombs group and visit foodnotbombs.net. We really need more cooks and it would be great if we were sharing seven days a week in all one thousand cities of the world where we’re currently active. We’re an all-volunteer thing so it’s all about people spending their time and coming out and helping collect and cut and share food.
Caryn Hartglass: It sounds really good. I just wanted to end on a delicious note. I’m looking at your website. I’m looking at your tofu sandwich spread recipe. It looks really yummy.
Keith McHenry: People are always shocked. I gave that out at Conscious Living Expo in LA a year ago to hundreds and hundreds of people. They’re like “What! That’s tofu? That’s amazing!”
Caryn Hartglass: So go to foodnotbombs.net and check out the tofu sandwich spread and everything else that’s up there. Keith, thank you again and just keep doing it.
Keith McHenry: Thank you so much for having us. Take care.
Transcribed by Suzanne Kelly 7/21/2014, edited by Johanna Bronner 8/20/2014