Potluck with social purpose

By Jenny Winkler

There is a group of people in Champaign that strongly believes food is a human right.

Food Not Bombs has been providing free food every Sunday since last May. High school and college students, homeless people or anyone wanting a free vegetarian meal can meet at Scott Park on the corner of Third and Springfield in Champaign on Sundays at 4:30 p.m.

“Feeding people brings people together,” said Zo‰ Swords, a Parkland student. “Anyone who wants it or needs it should have it.”

FNB is an international group founded in 1980 by anti-nuclear activists, according to its Web site. The volunteer group protests war, poverty and globalization of the economy.

“It’s eye-opening to see how wasteful most of us are,” said Annie Fehrenbacher, a junior at University High School. “It’s a great way to reach people through food.”

The Champaign branch started after Swords and another member participated in FNB in Nashville, Tenn., and wanted to start a chapter in Champaign. They spent a month talking about it before they got a group together and served the first meal on May 7, 2004, in front of Pizza Hut on Green Street. They chose Pizza Hut as the testing ground because its central location would raise awareness, said Swords.

After the success of the first meal, group members talked about serving food three times a week, but settled on Sundays instead. They tried a few parks like West Side, Crystal Lake, and Skelton. Since August, Food Not Bombs has met at their most successful spot, Scott Park.

“Scott Park bridges the gap between Champaign and Urbana,” said Swords. “It’s close to campus and the shelters.”

There are about 10 core members of Food Not Bombs, a non-hierarchical group. The majority of the group members are high school students and females who are vegetarian and anti-war. Food Not Bombs is always seeking volunteers, and they teamed with the Campus Vegetarian Society on Quad Day looking for recruits, said Fehrenbacher.

About 10 people show up each week, and there have been at least 30 people at meals before, said Fehrenbacher. Everyone serves him or herself and sits on blankets to eat. On Sunday, nine people came, their lowest turnout yet.

When they started serving at Scott Park, they had large turnouts – about 15 to 20 people every Sunday. After a few weeks, they were back down to small numbers. Fehrenbacher assumed it was because they had not passed out fliers in a while, and sometimes shelters forget to give fliers.

“We primarily serve homeless people,” Swords said. “(It’s hard) because we’re so separated from their community.”

The Common Ground Food Co-operative and other restaurant employees from the community donate the food. Jill Baer, an employee at CGFC, sets aside produce for the group.

“We like to give support to any kind of community effort that we see as a positive force in the community,” Baer said.

Swords said FNB uses different volunteer kitchens each week to prepare the food.

“It’s not hard at all,” Fehrenbacher said. “We do it for several hours. It’s leisurely and doesn’t feel like work at all. It’s just hanging out with friends and you get to give out food.”

When the group has food left over, they bring it to the Center for Women in Transition in Champaign (CWT). Food Not Bombs has made it a habit to bring the food there because CWT serves a Sunday night meal, said Swords.

“It’s very generous,” said Kathy Sims, director for CWT. “The act they do in of itself by having a free meal and to drop the leftovers here, it’s just generous.”

FNB fund raises with benefit concerts and collects canned food. Local and out-of-state bands play for free at the Red Herring vegetarian restaurant in Urbana and the group has raised nearly $500. In the future, they want to make pamphlets, shelter maps and dumpster diving maps listing places with free or cheap food. They also need to find a permanent kitchen and a place to serve during the winter, said Swords.

“My view is even if we’re only reaching two or three people, it’s better than none at all,” Fehrenbacher said. “We’re not wasting resources.”