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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

McHeny describes Food Not Bombs’ growth, organization’s history helping those in need

Published: October 22, 2010
Section: News

Founder of the non-profit group Food Not Bombs Keith McHenry spoke at Brandeis Monday about the history of his organization and his own personal involvement in a group that grew from a few college students to a movement with chapters in more than 1,000 cities.

McHenry founded Food Not Bombs with a group of seven other students at Boston University in 1980 when they were inspired by their professor, Howard Zinn—the author of “A People’s History of the United States.”

McHenry and his friends started attending a number of anti-nuclear and anti-war rallies.

After a friend had been arrested at a rally, Keith and his fellow activists held a series of bake-sales in order to raise bail and cover legal fees for their incarcerated companion.

Eventually, their bakes sales turned into demonstrations of their own, with free vegetarian and vegan food distributed as an act of protest against war and nuclear attack.

The organization’s founders were inspired by a quote they found on a poster that read: “Wouldn’t it be great if our schools had all the money they need, and the Army had to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber?”

This lead the overarching goal of the organization to be one of redirecting government funds from military ventures to things like health care and education.

The original Food Not Bombs rallies were a fusion of protest, performance art and humanitarian action.

Today, McHenry said Food Not Bombs has stepped in where state-organized soup kitchens and other community efforts fell short, and were often first at the scene of natural disasters—including Hurricane Katrina.

Food Not Bombs has fed millions of people and also has established several free press radio stations, provided housing for hundreds of impoverished families through an initiative known as Homes Not Jails.

Homes Not Jails is based on a practice of breaking into foreclosed upon houses, fixing them up and inserting families to live in them.

“You’d be surprised how many homeless people want a house,” McHenry said.

At the height of its success, Homes Not Jails was operating in more than 200 houses in the San Francisco area.

Today, according to their website, Food Not Bombs “shares free vegan and vegetarian meals with the hungry in more than 1,000 cities throughout the world to protest war, poverty and the destruction of the environment.”

McHenry said his involvement in activism is in part, an apology for the actions of his forefathers.

His maternal grandfather was part of the committee that planned the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and his father played a part in the development of the Minuteman intercontinental nuclear missile.

McHenry has devoted the past 30 years of his life to Food Not Bombs. He has traveled to all corners of the globe, visiting chapters of the organization in cities all over the world.

He has also spent 18 months of his life in jail for various crimes associated with his participation.

Currently, McHenry lives in his van and drives around the country giving speeches at universities—just like the one he gave this past Monday night.

He then funnels the honorariums he receives from the colleges directly back into his organization.

When asked by a member of the crowd how he keeps activism fun, McHenry emphasized the importance of retaining a focus on action as opposed to meeting and planning.

After the event, a group of students discussed the possibility of organizing a team to go and assist local Boston-area chapters of Food Not Bombs.

The talk was co-sponsored by Brandeis Democrats, Students for Environmental Action, Democracy for America, Students for a Democratic Society, The Environmental Studies Department, and the Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies Program.