There was pasta, rice, beans and bagels. There were slices of bread covered with peppers, onions, tomatoes and fresh basil. I ate one, but a bearded man refused on the grounds that they looked “psychedelic.” There were plenty of plastic spoons, but no forks to be found. I ate half of a stuffed bell pepper with my hand.
This is Bellingham's Food Not Bombs, a group of graduates and students from Western and Whatcom Community College who serve free food to hungry people every Sunday at 4 p.m. They never turn anyone away—not even hungry journalists—and they almost never miss a Sunday.
“I think we've missed maybe one or two, ever,” volunteer Deanna Mohr said.
Food Not Bombs has been setting out home cooked meals in front of Starbucks on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Holly Street for about two years, Mohr said. They never asked for permission, and Starbucks employees have never asked them to leave.
Every Sunday, six or seven Food Not Bombs volunteers head to the Community Food Co-op on Forest Street to gather food that is about to be thrown out. Then they take it all over to volunteer Anjali Kusler's house and start cooking. They make whatever they can with what they get, Mohr said, but the meals are always vegan.
Making vegan food is not a matter of principal. Mohr said not all of the volunteers are vegan, and they certainly don't want to force other people to be vegan. But anyone walking down the street, regardless of dietary needs or beliefs, can enjoy vegan food, Mohr said. Also, it forces the volunteers to do some creative cooking.
“We don't ever have the option of copping out and making grilled cheese sandwiches,” she said.
However, the vegan rule is not set in stone, Mohr said. Food Not Bombs once rescued a large quantity of string cheese from the garbage can and handed it out on the street.
“Food is food,” Mohr said.
The food is free because, as the group's slogan states, “Food is a right, not a privilege,” Kusler said. “Everyone should be allowed to eat, even if you can't afford it.”
The food is not just for the homeless or the poor, but for anyone who wants it, Kusler said. The volunteers usually stay until all the food is gone. Any leftovers are taken back to Kusler's house and eaten or given to friends.
“It's like having a meal with your family,” said an attendee who simply goes by “Tom.”
Tom, a long-time supporter of what he described as the “guerilla street soup kitchen,” said there was a group of Food Not Bombs volunteers that served meals at Maritime Heritage Park on Holly Street in the 80s.
“You can't do a greater love to your neighbor than to feed him when he's hungry,” Tom said.
Food Not Bombs was originally started by anti-nuclear activists on the east coast, Kusler said. Though some chapters, such as the one in San Francisco, also hold demonstrations and protests, the Bellingham chapter generally stays non-political, Mohr said.
“More than anti-war, it's anti-poverty,” Kusler said.
The current incarnation of Bellingham's Food Not Bombs was started about four years ago by two volunteers named Brad and Gary. Even Mohr, who has been volunteering for three years, does not know their last names.
Food Not Bombs started serving in front of the Rainbow Center on Champion Street, then moved to its current location on Railroad Avenue about two years ago. Mohr said she prefers the current location because it is downtown and it is visible to more people.
The Bellingham chapter of Food Not Bombs, like every other chapter, has no leader, but everything still gets done, Mohr said. When asked why they keep coming out every week to stand in the cold and serve free food, one volunteer said, “It's surprising how little I've thought about an answer to that question.”
Food Not Bombs is more of a social activity than a job, Kusler said.
“There's enough people involved to where somebody always shows up and cooks,” Mohr said.