Food Not Bombs founder lives his philosophy

Article by Susan Jacobson.

For Keith McHenry, feeding the homeless and working poor is a way of life.

Homeless himself except for a 1987 Chevrolet van in which he sleeps, McHenry gave up promising careers in graphic design and marketing to crisscross the country, spreading the gospel of compassion for the poor.

Last week McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs, and two other people were arrested at Lake Eola Park, accused of violating Orlando’s ordinance regulating mass feedings. It was one of about 150 times that McHenry, 54, has been arrested while promoting the cause to which he has devoted his life.

“We want to get rid of capitalism or at least alter capitalism to the point where it’s humane,” McHenry said. “There’s no reason people should be living in the streets and coming to soup lines in the wealthiest country in the world.”

In the same park where thousands of Tea Party activists have rallied in recent years to denounce socialism, Orlando Food Not Bombs volunteers ladle out vegan fare and rouse political sensibilities Monday mornings and Wednesday evenings.


In April, a federal appeals court ruled against the group, saying the city could regulate the meals.

Mayor Buddy Dyer and the Police Department have vowed to enforce the law, which limits groups who feed more than 25 people at a time to two permits per year at each park within a two-mile radius of City Hall. Five Food Not Bombs members were arrested Wednesday and four Monday as the group handed out meals at the park.

Volunteers don’t want to rotate the meals among parks. They want to feed people at Lake Eola, a downtown showpiece, to shed light on what they view as an inequitable political and economic system.

McHenry drove to Florida from Taos, N.M, in his brown and gold van packed with literature, pots, water jugs, tables, a solar stove and his bed. Sporting a full beard reminiscent of his old hippie days, McHenry is in his element when persuading college students to join the fight or being interviewed about transforming the world into a fairer place.

His goal is to pressure the public and elected officials to divert spending from the military to basic human needs such as food, education, affordable housing and health care.

Orlando is a flashpoint because other Florida cities are debating similar regulations, he said. He wants to draw a line here.

“We don’t fault the city of Orlando for being in this dilemma because it really is a nationwide problem,” said McHenry, who wore a Food Not Bombs T-shirt he designed with a purple fist grasping a carrot. “There needs to be a national solution.”

McHenry moved around the country as a youth as the family followed his father’s job as a park ranger. He went to high school in Utah, where he organized a strike against a principal he considered authoritarian.

His activism accelerated in Cambridge, Mass., where he and seven other people founded Food Not Bombs in 1980. The organization now includes chapters on every continent except Antarctica.

“He’s very passionate about his cause,” said Mitzi Tharin, station manager at Sun Sounds of Arizona in Tucson, a radio station that reads to the blind. McHenry was marketing director there several years ago.

In Cambridge, McHenry began taking vegetables and fruit too imperfect to sell at the organic-produce store where he worked and giving them away to a homeless shelter and kids in public housing. Near the project were two tall glass towers that cast a shadow from a weapons-design lab. That was the inspiration for the name “Food Not Bombs.”

The group quickly expanded and began soliciting donations from bakeries and other stores, delivering the food to battered-women’s shelters, day-care centers and housing projects.

In the afternoons, members set snacks, literature and banners in Boston Common or Harvard Square, where they played music, performed puppet shows and warned against the danger of the arms race, nuclear power, war, racism and sexism.

“It was just an amazing thing,” said McHenry, who was studying painting at Boston University at the time.

A turning point for McHenry was when Boston merchants asked him to create a poster with a red circle and a diagonal line on top of a homeless man’s face, he said. The year was 1986, the Red Sox were in the World Series and the homeless were considered a blight. McHenry refused.

His next stop was San Francisco, where he and his then-wife started the second Food Not Bombs chapter and regularly fed the needy at the entrance to Golden Gate Park. On Aug. 15, 1988, McHenry was arrested.

“That was the first we had any inkling that you could actually get in trouble for sharing food,” he said.

Twice divorced with no children, McHenry lives in his van on a 1-acre plot in Taos, where he farms an organic garden. A onetime park-service guide, ad/graphics agency owner and museum superintendent, he ekes out a living designing websites and book covers and selling gouache paintings. He spends much of his time traveling and speaking at colleges.

Ben Markeson, a member of the 5-year-old Orlando Food Not Bombs, describes McHenry as an inspiration who isn’t afraid to stand up to power or make sacrifices for his values.

“He eats, breathes and sleeps Food Not Bombs and the Food Not Bombs movement,” Markeson said. “He’s dedicated his entire adult life to it. I admire that dedication because you don’t find it very much.”

To McHenry, there is no other way of life.

“This could potentially be the spark that changes things in America,” he said.

Categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply