The first Food Not Bombs group was formed in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1980 by anti-nuclear activists. The group consisted of all volunteers with no formal leadership. Members would rescue food from sources where it would have otherwise been trashed and use it to share vegan and vegetarian meals with the hungry.
In 1988, Food Not Bomb members were arrested for protesting San Francisco’s anti-homeless policies. Over 1,000 arrests were made between 1988 and 1997. News about the arrests inspired groups in other cities and countries to form their own local Food Not Bomb chapters.
Orlando Food Not Bombs
Orlando Food Not Bombs began sharing free vegan meals at Lake Eola in 2005. Originally the sharings were held every Wednesday at 5 pm. Three years later, a second sharing was established on Monday mornings. Between 50 and 120 people were served at each event and, when available, other donations were distributed. These events went on peacefully until city officials, responding to complaints from nearby residents, enacted a city ordinance requiring a permit to distribute food to more than 25 people at a time in any city park near city hall and limiting access to those permits to twice a year for each park.
If the group wanted to continue sharing meals, they would have to apply for a permit each time, switch locations after every second sharing, and continue to do that until they’d exhausted every downtown park in a year in which case they would have to venture elsewhere. Meanwhile those served by the group, many with limited resources to travel and stay informed, would have to figure out where the group was meeting on any given day and make it out to that constantly moving target. The city’s ordinance directly targeted the groups sharing meals downtown and many questioned if its enforcement was constitutional.
Orlando Food Not Bombs and the First Vagabonds Church of God, another group sharing food downtown at the time that claimed religious status, filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to rule the ordinance unconstitutional. The groups won this lawsuit in a ruling that declared the ordinance an infringement on their freedom of speech and the city ordinance was successfully blocked. Unfortunately, a higher court would later repeal that ruling, claiming that the numerous downtown parks would allow for ample meal sharings within a year. The court did not feel that these hurdles were an infringement on their rights.
This did not go over well.
Members of the group continued to share at Lake Eola and were subsequently arrested. The battle with the city continued through the summer of 2011. Still facing arrests, the group moved its operation to the steps of City Hall, directly below the Mayor’s office windows. Facing an upcoming election year, public pressure from the Orlando community, a very recent resolution passed by the Orange County Democratic Party asking the city to decriminalize food sharings in public parks, and increased national and international attention, Mayor Buddy Dyer allowed the group to continue sharing in the area in front of City Hall.
An unintended consequence of this truce with the city is that week after week, city officials are confronted with the faces of the hungry, the homeless, and the working poor at the steps of their building. The need is undeniable and it won’t be hidden from the view of their office suites or the public eye.
The area in front of City Hall is a public park and the group’s continued presence, despite the okay from the Mayor, is in violation of the city ordinance which is still in effect to this day.