Joshua Tehee

Tehee: Food Not Bombs displays the power of positive protest

A scene from Food Not Bomb’s 10th anniversary in 2006. The group celebrates its 20th anniversary with a concert benefit Sunday, Jan. 10.
A scene from Food Not Bomb’s 10th anniversary in 2006. The group celebrates its 20th anniversary with a concert benefit Sunday, Jan. 10. Special to The Bee

Food Not Bombs operates on the power of collective action.

It takes work to prepare and deliver free vegetarian meals to hungry populations at Fresno Roeding Park each week. But it’s not hard work, says Kelly Borkert, who has been a part of the grass-roots movement in Fresno for more than a decade.

“There is a series of tasks that need to be accomplished,” says Borkert, who volunteers in the kitchen at Wesley United Methodist Church each Saturday morning. “With cooperative effort and a little common sense, it becomes so easy.”

Food Not Bombs is a national movement started in 1980 during the protests at Seabrook Nuclear power station in New Hampshire. It now operates in 500 cities in the United States alone. Each city and group works autonomously or independently toward the same goal.

Fresno held its first Food Not Bombs event on Jan. 11, 1996, during a visit from then-speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and has been operating pretty much every Saturday since. The Saturday group (there is a second FNB group that delivers to Fresno’s Courthouse park on Sundays), celebrates its 20th anniversary on Sunday, Jan. 10, with a concert fundraiser and vegan potluck at Full Circle Brewing Co. in Chinatown.

This is active, positive protest.

The meals are prepared by volunteers, made from food “plucked from the edge of disposal darkness and turned into gourmet meals,” Borkert says. Much of it is donated instead of being thrown away. The bread and pastries are picked up from Whole Food Markets. The vegetables come from Angel Farms. The group does rely on donations for the staple ingredients – beans and rice.

Usually there is chilli and rice or soup. There is always a salad. The group is know for its salads, Borkert says.

What really makes the Food Not Bombs movement unusual is the lack of distinction between the servers and the served, says Heather Balcom, who started volunteering in 2008 on the recommendation of a classmate at Fresno State.

“The people who come primarily to eat have always helped unload, set up, and, if we’re shorthanded, serve the meal,” she says.

If there is enough food, those who come to serve, can eat, too.

Her memories of working with the group are vast, but most don’t translate well into stories because they rely on knowing the people involved.

“People and community exemplify Food Not Bombs ideals,” she says.

That is what drew Blake Jones to the organization.

He calls it “one of the best things that happens in Fresno,” and remembers the first time he brought his daughter to help prepare a meal.

“It’s just this totally great vibe of people getting together to do some positive giving,” he says.

It was one of the happiest mornings he’d had in a long time.

For the past dozen years, Jones’ contribution to the Food Not Bombs effort is the annual concert and fundraiser. It’s typically a night of electric rock and roll with an out-of-town band – and a vegan potluck. This year’s event features Jones’ band, the Trike Shop, along with the noise band Department Store and the Kevin Hill Blow Out. Part of the money will be used to help Wesley United Methodist Church update its kitchen, Borkert says.

Over the years, the number of people showing up at Roeding Park has dwindled. Borkert remembers days when the line of those waiting to be served ran a hundred deep. There are weeks now when the group feeds only a dozen people.

The optimistic side of Borkert would like to see that as progress. He knows better. While some of the slack has been taken up by other community organizations (and individuals) offering similar services, much of the population Food Not Bombs served at the park has been displaced, as the city broke up homeless encampments around the freeway and railroad tracks.

Some of those have no doubt moved to other parts of the city, he says.

Those that remain keep Borkert working.

“I am still seeing the same faces,” he says. “There are people who are still coming.”

Joshua Tehee: 559-441-6479, @joshuatehee

Food Not Bombs benefit concert