Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Food Not Bombs: Serving Everyone for the Past 16 Years

Mo Karn (center, front) is among the longest-serving volunteers for Food Not Bombs.

Listen to the full story here

Some people do while others talk. That's the outlook of Food Not Bombs, a group that has been supporting the Richmond community by feeding those in need for 16 years.

Richmond’s ‘Food Not Bombs’ chapter is part of a loosely-connected nationwide movement. Mo Karn, one of the longest-serving volunteers, has worked with the program for 7 years. She says the origins of the national movement go back to around 1980.

“It started as anti-war discussions about why the government spends so much money on guns and bombs and killing people, when just a portion of that money, if we put it toward food and housing for people, would solve so many more problems and be more effective," Karn said. "So they came up with ‘Food Not Bombs.’ Pretty simple. People ask what the group is about and I say ‘food … not bombs!'”

Richmond Food Not Bombs has been going to the Main Street side of Monroe Park and serving home-cooked, hot vegan meals to anyone who is hungry every Sunday for the past 16 years. Karn said she doesn’t see her work as charity, but rather as a meal for the community.

“We aspire to show solidarity with people, not charity. I think there are a lot of groups that give out food and serve meals. A church will have it and it’s evident that it’s only food for homeless people to eat. So Food Not Bombs is for anybody, I mean, I eat Food Not Bombs every Sunday, I count on it for my dinner. I don't really get blueberries and blackberries outside of Food Not Bombs, and a lot of food that we serve, we're lucky to get lots of fruits and vegetables that even people with jobs can't afford to have on a regular basis.”

The fresh produce is all donated by local grocery stores. Kroger and Whole Foods are the big donors these days, though Richmond’s own Ukrop’s participated in the past. Karn says the process of requesting food is as easy as walking up to a produce manager and asking for what the store cannot sell. The produce may be a little bruised or past its prime, but it is still good to eat and give away.

“We don’t serve food we wouldn’t eat ourselves, because we do eat it. And that’s what we tell people who come to cook who don’t have much experience cooking, because anyone is welcome to come. They say, ‘Is this good? Is that good?’ and I ask, ‘Would you eat it?’ and if they say 'nope,' well then don’t serve it.”

If you visit their cooking house, located in Richmond’s North Side Barton Heights neighborhood, you will see the amazing wealth of donated goods: apples, pears, artichokes, bananas and berries of every color and size, just to name a few. The smells and sounds are enough to excite the senses of anyone with a taste for fresh food. A tub of homemade pesto spread was thrust into my face as I entered the room and its aroma was just as inviting as our hosts. The jovial atmosphere was more like a party house with people cutting carrots instead of munching chips and sipping drinks.

Before long, it’s time to pack up the hot tomato bisque, stuffed peppers and fresh fruit salad into the back of their pickup truck and head downtown. They set up a few tables and hang their banner between two trees and a crowd begins to develop.

Karen White, a breast cancer survivor who says she had to choose between her medication and her rent, has been coming to Food Not Bombs every Sunday for 5 years. She said the work these folks were doing helped her personally, adding that they act unlike any other hot meal site in town.

“They have humanity, respect and concern for one another. Some other groups come out here and they don’t have humanity, respect or concern and they will talk to you in any kind of way. I say to myself, ‘That food is not from God, I don’t want it,’ because I’m a human just like them. As long as they respect me, I respect them. You never know when the tables could turn. Food Not Bombs, they have good personalities, attitudes and they treat you like a human being.”

Mo Karn says there are other differences between Food Not Bombs and other soup kitchens in town. Their all-vegan menu is a large part of that.

“A lot of the groups in Richmond who serve food for free specifically to homeless people serve bologna sandwiches and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches -- a lot of it is meat-based. A lot of homeless people don’t want to eat meat. People don’t think about that, but you know, homeless people don't necessarily want to eat what a fifth grader wants to eat. There are people with health problems who don’t have money to buy food, and they get really excited that they can come and have food without a ton of salt and preservatives in it every Sunday. It's vegetarian and vegan food because that's accessible to everybody. Meat eaters can eat vegan food.”

Jamal Jordan and Clement Oladipo were serving food this past weekend. It was their first time helping out. Oladipo was spending his rare Sunday off from work to help the cause.

“Seems like the right thing to do,” Oladipo said.

He also commented on the omission of faith from the group’s mission saying, “It shows that people who aren’t religious can do nice things too.”

Noel Alexander works in sales full time, but has made it out to serve food every Sunday for the last 6 months. He said he looked forward to the event.

“It's nice to help other people. You’re not changing the world, but maybe you’re making someone’s day a little bit better. Selfishly, I know it’s my favorite day of the week. It helps me. If nothing else, I know the people who are doing it are enjoying it and odds are, it is making at least one person feel a little bit better.”

Jeremy Hawthorn has worked with Food Not Bombs groups around the country, spending time in San Francisco and Orlando, Fla. He has seen some cities respond negatively to his group, and remembers a tough battle with real estate developers in the Orlando area, but says there is much less conflict in Richmond.

“There is a little bit of resistance, but not usually from the communities. Most places have a park and people will get a permit and go feed the homeless. Well, we just skip the government part. We don’t feel like it's necessary to go through all this paperwork to get food to people.”

When asked if he felt he was changing the world, Hawthorn said, “It depends on your definition of that. There is the over-arching sense of changing the world, but for some people that's almost intimidating. It's hard to see feeding a meal to someone as changing the world, but if you change your community, that is essentially the same thing, because
that is one's world -- everything around them, the people around them, the people they associate with on a day-to-day basis.

"I’m completely happy in saying that we’re helping to change the community as it is. Hopefully other communities are doing the same, and if that gets big enough, that is changing the world.”

Food Not Bombs will be in Monroe Park every Sunday at 4 PM and staying until about 5, or when the food runs out. You can contact Mo Karn at 804-303-5449 or stop by their house, the Wingnut, in the 2000 block of Barton Ave.

-Brad Kutner


  1. I just want to say that those are some amazing photos!!!! He must be a professional, the link under "photo credit: john garcia" goes to the guy's flikr account! WTF!

  2. great article, brad :) i didn't even know this was going on. i volunteer at a foodbank, and the food they serve is less than ideal for anyone to eat. i'm going to look into this! you are awesome.