Dumpstered Flowers, Donated Catfish and Civic Duty
I’m not too proud to predict that the Food Not Bombs network, founded in Cambridge, Mass. in the early 1980s, will be remembered as a seminal piece of our national historical fabric and an example of American-style anarchism. The Greensboro chapter of Food Not Bombs has expanded beyond its traditional role of serving meals to include poetry and music performances and a weekly food pantry. We provided early leadership in organizing a homeless day center in Greensboro. Many of our volunteers and diners — an interchangeable lot — have moved off the street with the support of Family Service of the Piedmont, and I like to think that Food Not Bombs has provided some of the structure and encouragement to make those transitions successful. We recently raised money, gathered donated supplies and installed a new kitchen for ourselves at the Hive community center in the Glenwood neighborhood. Much of the planning, fundraising and labor were provided by people who are currently homeless, formerly homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. We draw from the capacity of the most marginalized of our society, multiply their gifts and extend mutual aid to others in need. While official Greensboro and Guilford County squabbles about a racialized police controversy and how to make our downtown more vibrant, we run on a parallel track that largely eschews government assistance. My friend Sue Edelberg runs the Bike Me! Collective, which operates on similar principles, at the Hive, and we concurred recently that community self-organization appears to flourish in direct proportion with widescale economic distress. My Food Not Bombs cohort Liz Seymour talks a lot of about “the revolution of pots and pans,” a response to the economic crisis in Argentina when housewives turned out in the streets banging on pots and pans to demand government services. When government was unable to meet their needs, they organized themselves into neighborhood councils to see to it that everyone received food rations and other basic services. We put out a banquet last Friday to mark our last day serving at St. Mary’s House, the Episcopal church I attend near the campus of UNCG. My feelings about this have a certain rawness; what attracted me to St. Mary’s House in the first place was its hospitality to the down and out, and its intimate ties with the neighborhood around it. In any case, the decision has been made: As St. Mary’s House’s mission is to serve as a chaplaincy to area colleges, its function as a community center is slowly being phased out. And anyway, our ability to install a kitchen at our new home in Glenwood gave us a major boost of self confidence and greatly increases our capacity, so all of us are happy about the move. Tonight, a lavish feast is laid out: dinner rolls, beefy chunks of tomato, pound cake, chocolate cake, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, fried potatoes dressed with fresh herbs and melted cheese. Flowers retrieved from a Dumpster behind a floral shop adorn the tables. Clusters of people engage in spirited and friendly conversation: black and white, old and young, volunteer and homeless, kids with mohawks and gray-haired ladies — it seems the more outwardly different the more likely they are to find each other. Tomorrow, we’ll load spices into cardboard boxes, clear cucumbers out of the vegetable drawer, unload the freezer of its stock of catfish and mahi mahi and cart it all over to the Hive. Tim Hutchinson, who has moved from a camping spot near the Greensboro Coliseum to his own apartment in Glenwood, will mop down the kitchen floor one last time, and then he and Seymour will surrender their keys. It’s an ending and a beginning, of course. I have all this digital video footage I cherish the testimonials from our last supper at St. Mary’s House almost more than any of my other personal effects of. They range from Gary Koontz giving a haunting performance of “Amazing Grace” in his vibrating operatic voice to Aleister “Smokin’ McQueen performing a burlesque routine that got him roundly derided by the hosts of “America’s Got Talent.” Perhaps the most classic moment is when Seymour standsamong the seated rapt multitudes in that plain church house in a scenethat looks for all the world like a Norman Rockwell painting. “Iknow it’s no secret,” she says, “that a lot of the food that has beenserved at Food Not Bombs came out of a Dumpster. We’re lucky now thatwe get all of our food now pre-Dumpstered. We get it from EarthFare andDeep Roots. There was a time when we would go out on Dumpster runs.” Inher inimitable style Seymour leads up to the moral of her tale: amoment in which she and two housemates, Mark Dixon and Will Ridenour,were confronted by an angry manager bathed in bright light and standingon a loading dock behind a local Food Lion grocery store. “Shesaid, ‘You’re breaking the law, you’re breaking the law,’” Seymourrecounts. “And Mark said, ‘We’re collecting food for hungry people.What’s more important: collecting food for hungry people or the law?’And she said, “The law.’ Then we heard sirens and we left.”
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