Making Food Charity Obsolete

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by Chris Johnson

“Justice, Not Charity!” was the message of a group of people who protested outside a food bank fundraiser at the CBC this weekend. While the media and some of the fundraiser attendees seemed confused as to why people would ‘protest people helping the poor’, the message was quite clear to some of us. Charity is great, but we also need to create the conditions in which charity becomes obsolete.
For the past four years I have been a volunteer with the local chapter of Food Not Bombs, a grassroots ‘non-organization’ that collects food that might otherwise be wasted, cooks healthy meals and gives them away to whoever wants them. I’ve volunteered for several Food Not Bombs chapters across Turtle Island. There are chapters all over the world.
Giving away food is something I have long enjoyed doing. I spent a few years vagabonding around Turtle Island, and I’d always seem to hook up with a bunch of hippies who travelled around dumpster diving and giving away food. We knew it wasn’t the revolution and that it was something totally dependant on the industrial food system, but it was hella fun.
There exists, at the fringes of our society, a plethora of small groups of people who have participate in this renegade food security activity.
I’ll make another confession; I’ve been to over a dozen Rainbow gatherings, and it is these gatherings of hippies camping in the woods that I learned to cook for large amounts of people. Setting up a kitchen at a Rainbow gathering is a classic stone soup exercise. Do you know that old story? It goes something like: a traveller arrives in a town, and all he has is a soup pot. He starts a fire, fills it with water, and puts a stone in it. Villagers soon come around and ask what he’s doing. He says he’s making stone soup, but it could use a bit of salt. So someone goes and gets salt. He tastes it and says it could use an onion, and it continues like this, with him casually requesting one ingredient after another, until the villagers have all contributed to an awesome veggie soup. This is entirely how a Rainbow kitchen is born. SO many times I’ve arrived with just a small pot. My friends and I would start a fire a declare ourselves a kitchen. More cookware, food, etc would appear from people’s tents, until eventually it’s a full-on kitchen serving 150 vegan meals three times a day. At meal-time a hat is passed, and people pay what they can if they can, and this more than covers everything. It’s beautiful.
Some kitchens can be incredibly egalitarian, with hardly any organization, just people pitching in, with no one in charge. Sometimes it’s the same people working their ass off with dozens more asking what time is dinner, but sometimes, when it works, it’s the most joyful thing you’ve ever seen. This experience is the root of my belief in autonomous action, of leaderless organizations where no one is in charge and everyone is equal.
Something is missing in our collective approach to food security. Food banks and soup kitchens were never meant to be permanent solutions. As the story goes here in Canada, they were started in the 80′s for what people thought would be a very short time. Here we are 30 years later, and the soup kitchen and food bank dominate what passes for a food access movement.
This is not to say that innovative approaches are not happening. They totally are, and the point here is that these innovative approaches are what will make food banks and soup kitchens obsolete.
Community gardens, many of which are small demonstration plots, are extending in some places to urban farms, where large quantities or food are produced. Here in Lekwugen/WSANEC territories, folks with the UVIC Sustainibility Project have started a program that will assist people with the creation of backyard food gardens, with a portion of the food grown being put towards community meals.
My favourite idea, which has yet to happen in this town, (but I’m hoping to be part of creating), is the pay-what-you-can restaurant. If you’ve known me for more than five minutes you’ve heard me talk about this idea, and to save time and space with this article, I recommend you do a web search on the concept.
Potlucks are also becoming popular again. A friend and I have been talking about organizing the world’s biggest potluck (the current record being 850 people/dishes) and that might happen in the spring. In the meantime, we’ll work to encourage more people to organize potlucks. One thing I like about the idea is that it is very ‘stone soup’. Everyone has the chance to contribute whatever they are able, and everyone eats together as equals. This is one of the most appealing factors to me. I’m very interested in breaking down class barriers, which at the soup kitchens I go to are very clearly demarcated by the counter behind which the volunteers and staff serve meals. I refer to the food justice/access movement that potlucks and community garden projects belong to as the Everybody Eats movement, because it is the single unifying factor that can bring us all together; everybody eats.
I am hoping to get participate in the opening up of this conversation. What are other ways that we can ensure that everybody eats, and that charity is replaced with community? I’d love to hear your ideas and perhaps get involved in making them happen. This is what I live for. There is no greater imperative for me than making sure we live in a community and world where no one goes hungry. In a world where more than 50% of the food produced is being wasted, there is no reason at all that anyone should go hungry. As a person who is interested in the total liberation of all life, I know that I can’t get involved in every activist cause that I support, there is just not enough time. What I can do however, is leverage my power by empowering others. I’ve been hungry lots myself. (I am currently still food insecure, as they say) and I know that when I am hungry I can think of nothing but getting food. That’s what made me take a job at a soup kitchen in Calgary. I figured, perhaps the next Martin Luther King is out there, but s/he can’t get to the serious work of leading us to liberation if all they can think about is food. So by sharing food, we have the potential of making so many other things possible by proxy. By ending hunger, we open the door for all that that hunger has been suppressing.
My friends and I who are part of that underground/renegade food liberation movement, who rescue food from dumpsters and put it to use, have a rallying cry, a motto, a greeting, a slogan; something we say to each other in lieu of a farewell, or ‘live long and prosper’ and you are welcome to use it too, to join us in removing the barriers that suppress the human spirit by denying us one of those most important things that we need to thrive and be the most we can be: FREE THE FOOD!!

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