By Brittany Miller
In a chilly warehouse tucked away behind the produce section in the North Coast Co-Op is a six-foot tall metal rack overflowing with cardboard boxes emblazoned with logos of produce companies. The boxes are stuffed to bursting with wilted herbs, bruised apples, dented onions and slightly dehydrated mushrooms. Every Sunday around 2 p.m. the rack gets raided by participants of Food Not Bombs Arcata who will turn the secondhand produce into hearty vegan meals for homeless or hungry. The meals usually include a soup, salad and entrée.
Octavia is FNB’s current organizer. She declines to give her last name, or the last name of anyone else involved with FNB, since FNB is a self-proclaimed anarchist organization. Although a dictionary definition of anarchy might include references to “lawlessness” or “society without a publicly imposed government,” Food Not Bombs advocates for environmental, social, and animal justice.
While Food Not Bombs Arcata is a chapter of the Food Not Bombs movement, Octavia is quick to point out that because FNB Arcata is an anarchist organization, it is not connected to the original FNB in any significant way.
“I realize that’s an oxymoron, an anarchist organization,” says Octavia. “What I mean by that is that anyone can organize one, no one is committed, anyone can be in charge.”
Octavia is in charge, although she uses the term loosely. It essentially means that she is currently willing to be the face that North Coast Co-Op sees every week. They require the same person to pick up the food every week, to make sure no one takes advantage of the program. After Octavia picks up the food every week, she makes sure it finds its way to a kitchen full of people willing to chop, season, cook, and carry food to the Arcata plaza to serve at 4:30 pm
Being an anarchist co-operative is not without its challenges. They have a steady supply of food, donated by the co-op and other willing individuals. Daoist Arcatans recently donated a 200 pound bag of beans, Moonrise Herbs donates bags of spices. However, FNB Arcata doesn’t have a permanent kitchen. They have intermittent privileges at the Womb and the Dharma pad, nicknames for local private residences of HSU students and others.
“The people that live in the Womb have been great,” says Octavia. “So many people have moved in and out over the years. None of the original residents still live there. The people who have taken their place always seem to be cool with us using their space. Sometimes they help us cook, but they have their own lives so they can’t always let us use the kitchen.”
Another issue has been finding people to volunteer time for cooking.
“Since we don’t require commitments from people, we end up really shorthanded often,” Octavia says. “Most of the people who help us cook are students, and if there’s finals or a fun party going on, you can’t always count on people to be around.”
One of the central cooks, Casper, has been with FNB Arcata for years. He says not having a regular crew can lead to some logistical issues.
“Occasionally all of the utensils for serving are locked in someone’s car who decided to go out of town for the weekend,” Casper says. “Then we have to use whatever’s available to serve, like empty hummus or yogurt containers, plastic sporks.
Some of the volunteers are homeless, which can also be difficult.
“Like the 200 pounds of beans that were donated,” says Casper. “It was so generous, but we had no idea where to store them. Not everyone here has a house or a car they can offer. We had to split them apart and leave them in different places.”
One of the biggest difficulties for FNB has historically been law enforcement. According to the ACLU, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force is conducting ongoing surveillance and investigation of FNB. Many FNB chapters have reported struggle with local government and police. Luckily, problems with law enforcement in Arcata are down lately. The Arcata police and FNB have a strained but cordial relationship.
“They don’t usually bother us anymore,” says Octavia. “They know where we serve and when we serve. Sometimes they drive by, but they don’t hassle us as much as they could.”
When the Arcata Police do have a disagreement with one of the volunteers or recipients it usually has less to do with the food and food serving, and more to do with minor or specific issues with an individual.
“Pigs,” says Seed, a volunteer. “They give me tickets for having my dog off leash or having an expired dog license. Fuckin’ ridiculous.”
It’s not as easy for homeless volunteers and homeless recipients of Food Not Bombs, though.
“When I was homeless I never slept,” an anonymous volunteer says. “They were always waking us up, kicking us out of the plaza. They wouldn’t even let us eat in peace if we were ‘loitering’ or ‘congregating.’”
Despite FNB’s struggles, some Sundays everything comes together. On those Sundays, food and volunteers are plentiful and utensils and a kitchen are available. Volunteers will chop vegetables and play instruments. They sing songs in protest of clear cutting or discuss relevant issues, like the need for a better Homeless Bill of Rights or Green Diamond’s acquisition of beloved local forests. Casper seasons and stirs pots of food steaming on the stove, while listening to Notorious B.I.G, and sometimes people dance.
“This is what happens when the sun comes out,” says Julia, a ‘Womb’ resident. “Everyone shows up to help and brings their own happiness with them. It’s infectious.”
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