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McHenry being arrested during a Food Not Bombs Feeding. IMAGE: Keith McHenry

Three decades at the center of a movement

By Haley Walker
Fall 2009

To the cops, Keith McHenry is a convicted felon and a terrorist. His police record includes assault, battery and 45 counts of felony conspiracy.

To others, he’s an American hero who earned the 1999 Local Hero Award from the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the 2006 Advocate of the Year Award from the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness.

To McHenry, both raps validate the past 30 years of his life.

McHenry co-founded Food Not Bombs in 1980 to protest war and poverty through the sharing of free, vegan food that would otherwise be thrown away. The group opposes the government spending money on weapons, while many go hungry. In 2009, 49 million Americans went hungry, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Now an international movement with chapters in South America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Food Not Bombs collects donations from grocery stores and markets. Its members dumpster dive to gather edible food that has been discarded.

Americans throw away 96 billion pounds of food each year, according to the USDA.

McHenry’s group turns the food into home-cooked meals that it distributes to the homeless and hungry. It educates the public about food waste and sustainability.

McHenry knows what it is to be hungry. He says he has lived homeless in 1978, 1999 and again in 2002 after being diagnosed with fibromyalgia. He acquired $25,000 in medical debt and eventually lost his home.

Food Not Bombs volunteers have fed hungry people following the San Francisco earthquake in 1989 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. McHenry says the group was among the first to provide food to workers after 9/11.

“It is a much heavier impact when people actually see the waste becoming great, nutritious meals,” McHenry said by phone from a laundromat in Arizona. “Food is a basic human right, not for the privileged, but should be had by all, just by virtue of being alive.”

Food Not Bombs serves only vegan food to avoid the harmful environmental effects of meat and dairy production. Livestock production causes 18 percent of all global warming gases, and has contributed to 30 percent of the earth’s ice loss, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Other environmental programs have emerged from the Food Not Bombs foundation, including Food Not Lawns, an international movement promoting the growth of urban and community gardens. Food Not Bombs chapters are developing water purification projects in Nigeria.

McHenry laughs when considering how the group has grown.

“It is just so amazing,” he says. “Almost every day, I hear about one or two new chapters that have emerged in smaller and smaller towns.”

McHenry gains momentum and encouragement from the Food Not Bombs volunteers he visits around the country. Traveling in a small pickup truck, which often doubles as a hotel room, he speaks at colleges nationwide, encouraging young people to join the group.

But the message behind the group’s actions — that militarism and capitalism produce waste and contribute to world hunger — doesn’t resonate with everyone. Members of the group have been arrested by law enforcement for violating city ordinances, distributing food without a license, and for participating in a variety of protests.

McHenry says he has been beaten 13 times by police, resulting in torn ligaments and broken bones. It took two surgeries to repair his sinuses after he was hit between the eyes with a nightstick.

“I am in constant, extreme pain,” he says. “This has dramatically affected my life.”

But the beatings show the group’s effectiveness, he says.

“If the government didn’t think that we were making a change or threatening the capitalist system, then they would ignore us,” he says.

Eight years after the group began, riot police confronted a chapter serving food at Golden Gate Park and many volunteers were arrested for violating city permits, McHenry says.

News reports show the group has been raided in Minnesota and California. In 2008, Minnesota volunteers were charged with “conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism,” according to the group’s Web site.

McHenry says Food Not Bombs is on the FBI’s terrorist-watch list. Chad Kolton, spokesman for the FBI Terrorist Screening Center, says his department cannot confirm this because of privacy and security issues.

The group has been accused of prolonging protests by serving food. Food Not Bombs served food to protesters at the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, the 1997 protest against the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and other high profile, anti-globalization protests across the world.

“People need to protest or else we won’t have a future,” McHenry says.

Throughout his life as an artist, museum curator and advertising executive, McHenry has embodied the meaning of resistance. His father worked for the National Parks Service, and he grew up living in Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and the Everglades.

“I saw the four corners area of the southwest when it was pure, and saw corporate America mine and poison the beautiful Hopi and Navajo lands as I lived in the area,” he says. “My father also taught me much about nature and he gave me [Henry David Thoreau’s] Walden, which inspired me to become an activist.”

Before beginning Food Not Bombs, he protested nuclear power projects in New Hampshire. He traveled to Central America to protest the Contra war, and has organized peace protests for El Salvador and Iran in Washington, D.C., New York and Boston.

McHenry estimates he has spent more than two years in jail for his work with the organization and his participation in protests. Amnesty International, a non-profit human rights and justice organization, named him a “prisoner of conscious” for showing nonviolent opposition and having been imprisoned for his beliefs. McHenry shares the title with Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese politician who has been under house arrest for 14 of the last 20 years for opposing the country’s military junta.

At 52, McHenry’s health and previous injuries have threatened to slow his involvement with the group.

“I have tried to do less and just ended up doing more,” he says. “I feel it is my responsibility, because I am one of the only people who knows the history of Food Not Bombs.”

When McHenry looks back on the next 30 years, he wants to see that Food Not bombs has bettered the world.

“I hope people are suffering less, war is obsolete, and working together is the thing to do,” he says. “This is what I hope to see.”

Haley Walker is a first-year graduate student studying environmental journalism at MSU. Contact her at walker4@msu.edu.

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