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Controversial Activist Promotes Vegetarianism, Peace At Swarthmore

This story was written by Dylon Chow, Swarthmore Phoenix

Can vegetarianism reduce the likelihood of war? Since 1980, Food Not Bombs has been arguing that it can. One of the organizations co-founders, Keith McHenry, gave a lecture at Swarthmore Collegeon Tuesday, Nov. 25, focusing on the history of Food Not Bombs and its major goals: supporting vegetarianism and redirecting military expenses to providing food. Food Not Bombs was founded upon the belief that conditions of scarcity impede cooperation among different groups competing for a share of finite resources. Promoting the consumption of vegetarian food, which is less resource-intensive than meat products, is one way to address the problem of scarcity. Food Not Bombs maintains the philosophy that an abundance of food simultaneously nourishes anti-war activists and reduces the overall likelihood of conflict among groups with insufficient resources.

Unlike charities that give food to specific groups, such as low-income families or the homeless, Food Not Bombs aims to provide food to anyone who stops by one of the organizations distribution booths. Emphasizing the need for coalition-building among different progressive movements campaigning against militarism, Food Not Bombs uses these booths to provide vegetarian food and anti-war literature at demonstrations, protests and other events across the country.

McHenry first developed an interest in food policy and social change after witnessing numerous examples of resource scarcity and environmental degradation in his youth. While working at a grocery store in Boston, he was frustrated by the volume of edible food that was thrown away on a regular basis. After seeing the Grand Canyon Dam and a plant of Peabody Energy Corporation, the worlds largest private-sector coal company and a major polluter, McHenry became aware of the environmental impact of profit-driven corporations: I had seen the destruction of the environment, he said. Further, as a student at Boston University, McHenry studied under professor and social activist Howard Zinn, a mentor who emphasized the role of grassroots movements in initiating social change. His ideas about [the] struggle to make a difference affected me, McHenry said. In 1980, McHenry and seven friends founded Food Not Bombs in Cambridge, Mass. Since its early days, the organization has been guided by the simple philosophy that nobody should be without food. Food Not Bombs quickly gained momentum on the East Coast and its organizers began to spread their message to other regions of the country.

Eight years after founding Food Not Bombs, McHenry moved to San Francisco to launch a Food Not Bombs chapter there. His organizing efforts prompted an unexpectedly harsh response from the citys government. Several volunteers were arrested for distributing food on the grounds that they had not obtained appropriate permits. According to McHenry, the citys police force selectively targeted the Food Not Bombs volunteers because of the organizations vocal opposition to the federal governments military spending. Since then, McHenry has been arrested over a hundred times and was sentenced to twenty-five years to life under the California Three Strikes law.

The charges were dropped, however, after international protests generated intense public scrutiny of the high profile trial. Although he managed to avoid a long prison sentence, McHenry is still under surveillance by the federal government. In addition to earning an entry in the FBIs Terrorist Screening Database, McHenry claims that many of his private phone conversations are monitored. As a result, he takes special precautions to minimize the governments access to his private correspondence. For example, he does not receive mail from the U.S. Postal Service, but through private delivery services such as FedEx.

Undeterred by the American governments oppositio to the organization, Food Not Bombs decided to extend its activities globally. During the 1990s, Food Not Bombs branches were established in Canada, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Australia and Nigeria. After visiting Food Not Bombs groups worldwide, McHenry says he was was most moved by his experience in Nigeria. Lagos, Nigeria was incredibly powerful for me, McHenry said. People there were rioting for food. They even tried to break into the van.

Today, there are hundreds of Food Not Bombs chapters throughout the world that function without formal leaders. A distinguishing characteristic of this organization is its non-hierarchical structure. I think its key that we not be oriented around a personality, McHenry said. Social activists around the world are free to start their own groups without requesting consent from McHenry or any of the original founders. The organizations website offers an elaborate manual for activists interested in launching their own chapters.

With the changing political climate and the impending inauguration of president-elect Barack Obama, McHenry and other Food Not Bombs activists anticipate hard times for progressive movements in the coming years but also an opportunity to see their policy recommendations implemented by the countrys political leaders.

According to McHenry, Food Not Bombs is competing with countless other interest groups to make its cause a budgetary priority for the incoming administration. Now, Obama could make a few less cruise missiles but [all the money] could go toward education, literacy and health care, McHenry said.

Particularly now, McHenry sees a need for more popular participation in social and political activism. Its so rewarding. At this time in history its so important in a changing society, with increased hunger and with increased military, that many people get involved, he said.

Some students are considering launching a Food Not Bombs chapter at Swarthmore. Claudia Seixas 10, who helped to organize the event, said that she shares the organizations values. I think it would be a good idea to start a Food Not Bombs group at Swarthmore, she said.

Kaitlin Smith 10 said she is interested in working with a local Food Not Bombs branch in west Philadelphia. Food Not Bombs demonstrates that the food scarcity myth is misleading, and that this food scarcity problem is about the distribution of food and wealth. Its ultimately about profit [of corporations], she said.

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