Food Not Bombs volunteers share food in downtown Tampa park despite legal concerns

12/18/12 Janelle Irwin
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Volunteers with the group Food Not Bombs served breakfast to people in Gaslight Square in downtown Tampa Tuesday. The group has been feeding people in the city for years, but this particular routine started last week and will continue every Tuesday through the holidays.

“Well, we have sweet potatoes, oatmeal and bagels.”

That could change next week though. Thích Giác Ngô, a Buddhist monk with Food Not Bombs said the group gets most of their food from places who are about to throw it out. This week’s haul according to Jessica Prescott, another volunteer with Food Not Bombs, included bruised sweet potatoes.

“Any produce we use comes from also stuff that’s about to be thrown away like produce stands that [at] the end of the day they have stock they’re not going to sell so they’re just going to write it off at a loss. So, we can get that either free or very cheaply. And a lot of stuff is just donated like beans and rice and oats and that sort of thing that can go in a pantry. We just sort of accumulate it over time.”

What the group is doing is technically against the law. A Tampa ordinance prevents feeding groups of people on public property without a permit. But the law is only sporadically enforced. Just last year a couple was told they couldn’t hand out breakfast in a public parking lot downtown near Interstate-275. In 2004, people were arrested for serving food in downtown Tampa’s Massey Park. Michael Maddux defended the three people arrested.

“The city eventually agreed to engage in a conversation about the issue after they arrested all the feeders, trespassing them one weekend and when they came back the next arresting them. They eventually agreed to re-draft the ordinances that they claimed would have required that they permit this event. All the criminal cases were dropped.

Maddux isn’t sure exactly what happened to those ordinances after his clients’ charges were dropped, but the city still has regulations on the books that could be used against Food Not Bombs feedings.

“Section 16-43 of the city ordinance and it lists prohibited activities and attempt to set forth all kinds of things that you can’t do. You can’t ‘conduct any activity or utilize any department managed land in a manner which will result in commercial activity.’ I’m not sure how you can say giving away a free meal is a commercial activity. There’s also another portion of it that says that you shouldn’t use the land in way that’s dangerous to health, safety or welfare of other folks or that interferes with the use and enjoyment of the recreation facility by others. Those are some catch-alls that might be utilized by the city to claim that a permit’s necessary otherwise it’s considered a prohibited activity.” That possibility isn’t stopping Food Not Bombs from sharing meals with those who need it. One of the group’s volunteers, Jessica Prescott scored some of today’s feast from an Einstein Bagel shop in Tampa. She said her car still smells like everything bagels.

“At the end of the day on Monday I go pick them up from them because they’re just going to throw them away. So, that’s part of what Food Not Bombs wants to do is keep from being wasted.”

While the Tampa volunteers will dole out helpings of oatmeal and sweet potatoes to anyone who wants some, their primary focus is on feeding the city’s poor. Thích Giác Ngô said Gaslight Square is teeming with people without homes early in the morning after they’ve left the nearby Salvation Army shelter.

“They’ve been doing Saturday night and Sunday around noon here and that’s kind of back to back and kind of burns people out and so we asked the guys here, you know, what you need and they said breakfast.”

Volunteers started serving breakfast a little before eight this morning and by nine had already fed more than a dozen people. Michael Smith was one of them.

“Right now I’m currently registered as homeless pending my disability.”

Smith had just left the Salvation Army shelter and was headed to the post office to pick up his mail. Smith said the shelter serves three meals a day, but the breakfast he got from the Food Not Bombs group was an unexpected treat.

“Yeah, [I’ve] just been walking this morning and I walked a little bit of breakfast off so stopping here was a little bit of a refreshing moment for me. You know, it energized me.”

He also liked it a little better than the Salvation Army food.

“The breakfast was good. It was very nutritious. It was food that was going to be thrown away. I think that was very resourceful.”

Food Not Bombs was started in the 1980s as a grassroots movement to end hunger and promote non-violent social change. Autonomous groups across the world share meals in public places despite efforts in many cities to stop them. Activists in Tampa have blamed anti-homeless policies on elected officials who were trying to clean up the city for the Republican National Convention last year. That, in part prompted Food Not Bombs to have their annual World Gathering here the week before the convention. Overall, Food Not Bombs volunteers Jessica Prescott and Thích Giác Ngô said the people they feed leave grateful and satisfied.

“They’re certainly happy to have us out here.”

“One guy, seeing us, said, ‘it’s Tuesday.’ We were here last Tuesday and he heard from us that we’d be here on Tuesdays and that’s one reason I volunteered myself that the next two Tuesdays because that’s Christmas and New Year’s that I would be here.”

All of the food served by Food Not Bombs is vegetarian. The group also provides personal hygiene products like soap and mouthwash when they have them.

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