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Food Not Bombs Pensacola took a protest and turned it into a potluck

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Jennie McKeon
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WUWF Public Media
Volunteers serve up food at the Food Not Bombs meal on Friday, Dec. 9.

Friday nights at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza, volunteers with Food Not Bombs Pensacola are setting up tables and unwrapping homemade vegetarian dishes for their weekly dinner.

By 6 p.m., it’s ready to go and a line has formed. For dozens of unhoused or food-insecure individuals, Food Not Bombs is a lifeline.

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“Food prices are so high — even my food stamps don’t cover it,” said Chris who is working out of homelessness. “If it wasn’t for them, there’s a lot of meals I’d be hungry for. A lot of people would be hungry.”

Food Not Bombs Pensacola acts with two mottos in mind: “solidarity not charity” and “food is a right, not a privilege.” Alongside the dinner, you may also find other groups such as the Humanists of West Florida with free clothes and toiletries, or nonprofits providing resource information.

There’s no check-in. No questions asked. Food is served until it’s gone. Most even leave with a to-go box.

Origins

FNB, as it's referred to by volunteers, is different from other meal sites and food distribution sites mostly for its message.

“It's essentially a weekly protest (that happens to include food) against the government's misplaced priorities when it comes to spending,” said Monika Durbin, who volunteers with her 13-year-old, Cai. “There is no need for anyone in this country to go hungry. The shared meal at FNB is our way of showing, ‘Look how easy it is to take care of one another. We are creating the kind of society we want to live in.’”

The first Food Not Bombs was founded in 1980 by eight anti-nuclear activists in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It started as a stunt with protestors organizing a soup line to demonstrate that a nuclear war could lead to an economic crisis. Later on, their efforts were focused on food — seeing how much of a need there was. A second group started in San Francisco in 1988. To date, there are groups in 49 states, and 20 groups in Florida alone.

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Jennie McKeon
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WUWF Public Media
Alongside the weekly meal, FNB provides any essential items they can collect for unhoused individuals.
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Jennie McKeon
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WUWF Public Media
Pam, left, says she's grateful for Food Not Bombs and appreciates that the group is independently run.

Food Not Bombs groups are independent, but do have an agreement that all food must be vegetarian or vegan and, most importantly, free.

The current Pensacola group started with the Occupy Wallstreet protests in Pensacola. At one time, there were three meal distributions a day, but it became too grueling for volunteers, said Michael Kimberl, one of the founders of the Pensacola group. It’s been a weekly meal since 2011. A rotating group of about 20 to 40 volunteers helps prepare dishes, set up tables, or serve. Most weeks, the group serves about 50 people.

“It’s a big community event,” said Kimberl, a well-known advocate for local homeless people. “I attribute this to my start and what really got me involved. Growing up in the punk community and being influenced by anarchist culture, I feel like I’ve always been into Food Not Bombs.”

Local grocery stores or restaurants may donate food that would otherwise go in the trash. Kimberl and his wife will purchase staples such as rice and beans. Items in high demand include paper plates, utensils, bottled water, and condiments.

It’s been a year since the city of Pensacola allocated $1.5 million in federal funding to address homelessness. Around that time nearly 200 people who were living under I-110 were given notice to vacate. Dozens more beds have opened up at shelters, but the demand is still great, advocates say.

Just look at the line at MLK, Jr. Plaza.

“I’d like people to see what’s going on here and to stop pretending like the homeless crisis here in Pensacola isn't a problem now that the 110 camp is gone,” said Boris Gaidai, who’s been volunteering since last May. “Stop pretending like the problem has been swept under the rug and that it's not an issue, and actually try to do something about it instead of getting another (expletive) committee and then spending ages just doing nothing.”

‘It’s a wonderful meal’

Pam moved to Pensacola about a month ago after living in New Orleans. Before that, she owned a home in Panama City, but it was bulldozed after being damaged by Hurricane Michael in 2018.

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Jennie McKeon
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WUWF Public Media
Volunteers serve up food at the Food Not Bombs meal on Friday, Dec. 9.
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Jennie McKeon
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WUWF Public Media
Two plates of vegetarian food at the December 9 Food Not Bombs dinner.

“I couldn’t afford to fix it and I didn’t want to take out that kind of loan,” she said. “So, I lost it. I miss my house and I miss my cats. It’s hard for me to talk about my house. But I’m pleased to be here (in Pensacola).”

Pam has been to three FNB dinners. Each one restores her faith in humanity a little bit.

“It’s a wonderful meal, I mean, they really cook for us,” she said. “And they bring clothes — things we need. They bring water. They’re not affiliated with a church. I think they just do it because they want to help hungry, homeless people.”

It might be a cliché, but volunteers take something away from the dinners, too. Chiara, who declined to give a last name, has been with FNB Pensacola for about two years. She likes that the mission asks nothing of the people it serves.

“There’s a huge bureaucracy around just deciding who is and isn’t worthy of society's support,” she said. “And this is just something we do every week unconditionally. You just show up and get help.”

The FNB dinner is located just a few feet from the Martin Luther King, Jr. bust. It’s the perfect spot for the group, said Andy, one of the regulars who dines “every once in a while.”

“I would say Dr. King would completely approve of them as he was engaged in the Poor People’s campaign,” he added.

Not everyone joins Food Not Bombs with the same mindset. People sometimes disagree, said Chiara.

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Jennie McKeon
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WUWF Public Media
One of the regulars, Hollywood, plays ukelele with volunteers.
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Jennie McKeon
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WUWF Public Media
Volunteers serve up food at the Food Not Bombs meal on Friday, Dec. 9.

“We find commonality in helping others,” she said.

There’s also a camaraderie between the diners and the volunteers. No one is really anonymous. Friends are catching up in between bites of mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese. One of the regulars, who goes by Hollywood, often pulls his ukulele out to jam with volunteers.

“It doesn't matter if we're there to eat, to cook, to serve, to merely hang out, or all of the above,” said Durbin. “We remember each other's birthdays, listen to people talk about projects they're working on and chat about books we love at the literature table. And of course, there's lots of raving about the food.”

Being under the lights from the city’s holiday decorations made this recent meal a little extra special, said Chris. He’s been off of the streets for two months. It’s a struggle every day.

“But guess what? It’s getting better. Even my neighbors cheer me on as I walk down the street to go to work.”

Chris feels that same compassion when he comes to the weekly dinners. Just one meal a week makes all the difference for him.

“They feel they need to give back and that’s what they do,” he said. “And I appreciate the hell out of them.”

“The only other thing I want to say is ‘Merry Christmas.’”

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.