Food Not Bombs: An Interview with Keith McHenry
Jul 07, 2017

20 minute read


Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs, has a vision: food not bombs changes people, service brings people together, and abundant thinking turns hearts to peace. For the last 35 years, he has worked with others to salvage surplus food, prepare it, and serve it for free in parks, at protests, and during disaster relief efforts. At these meals, volunteers distribute literature, share stories and engage in conversations that encourage people to get involved, connect and become part of an emerging, post-capitalist society.

Food Not Bombs is a loose-knit, all-volunteer group of collectives that serve free vegan and vegetarian meals to the homeless and hungry as a protest to war and poverty. They served their first meal in 1981 outside of the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston to protest capitalism and the investment in the nuclear industry. It has since grown into a global movement with over 1,000 chapters in 60 countries. Each chapter is autonomous, but all share three central tenants: Meals are always vegan or vegetarian and free to everyone without restriction-- rich/poor, stoned/sober; each chapter is independent and autonomous and makes decisions using the consensus process; they are not a charity, but people dedicated to non-violent direct action to change society.

Keith McHenry is an actor and activist behind Food Not Bombs. He was one of eight co-founders of Food Not Bombs in Massachusetts and a co-founder of the second chapter of Food Not Bombs in San Francisco. Despite being arrested over 100 times for serving food to the homeless and then facing life in prison, he has persisted in expanding his belief in an alternative model to a capitalistic, exploitive system of government. In 1995, He co-founded Indymedia, a global open publishing network of journalist collectives and San Francisco Liberation Radio. In 2012, he started the Food Not Bombs Free Skool with his partner, Abbi. He currently travels the world, speaking at colleges, bookstores, and cafes while assisting local Food Not Bombs chapters prepare and share meals. His story is one that inspires the creation of a compassionate society and encourages living in a service-oriented way. What follows is the edited transcript of an Awakin Call interview with Keith McHenry moderated by Aryae Coopersmith.You can read or listen to the full version of the interview here.

Aryae Coopersmith: Thank you Keith for setting aside the time for this call.

Keith McHenry: Thanks, it is wonderful to be wandering around this campus and to be in circle with you all.

Aryae: How did you end up being at this particular campus today?

Keith: I've been on tour since 1994. I was speaking at the National Animal Conference in LA and I met the organizers of a booth that was here at Veg Fest and they invited me to come speak. So when you put out love, serendipity endlessly happens. You end up going all over the place and doing all sorts of things you would never expect.

A.: How much travel do you do?

K.: I spend September, October and November traveling to the schools and universities in North America and then I will go south for December. In January/February I speak in Mexico or Indonesia, Philippines, sometimes Europe and Africa. Fortunately I have been able to travel the world; sometimes I spend time in Nairobi or Kenya. Everyone wants to know if I saw the beautiful elephants and wildlife, but it turns out I saw these amazing people and these amazing children that were so happy just because they had enough to eat and they got to participate in workshops that we put on. This is what I see when I visit from the slums in Nairobi or the most hardcore parts of Nigeria to places like Iceland where I was right after the revolution. It has been really magical to see how the Food Not Bombs people do their work based on three basic principals: the food is always vegan or vegetarian, that there is no leader or HQ, that each group is autonomous and makes decisions using the consensus process, to include not only everyone in the community that wants to help, but to invite people that may need food to participate in guiding the local chapter; and finally that we are not a charity, but we are dedicated to non-violent direct action to change society so no one has to live in the streets or go hungry or face the ravages of environmental distraction or war. This sets us aside from, for example, the Salvation Army, which in America many people tend to compare us with. This is not really the case.

A.: When you said, "We are not a charity, we are non-violent direct action community," what is the difference between a charity and Food Not Bombs?

K.: Well, the distinction is the people that are eating with us are us. We are not separated from the people that come to eat. This is one major distinction and the other is we do not have the perspective that the poor will always be with us and it's their fault that they're poor and we're above them. We are coming from the perspective that we can change society and that no one needs to go without. This is where the term I often use, a post-capitalist society, comes in because there is no balance in a society where you always have to increase the process, increase the use of resources, linear economic and political systems that much of the world exists in. Really the earth is a finite closed ecological system and it makes a lot of sense that we live in harmony with one another and with the earth and our own sense of spirit. This is what will pull us through over the coming generations. You can see that with the Water Protectors up in North Dakota. It's such a clash of cultures. People are trying to live in harmony with the environment and protect the water and at the same time people are trying to increase their power and their profits and are waging a military assault against native people on their own land. They are really using a lot of violence against peaceful people.

A.: You said you still believe that the human spirit is at the point of global transformation. Why now as opposed to some other time?

K.: I was a big proponent of the hundredth monkey theory, which was something very popular in the anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s and 1980s. At some point that 100th monkey started to wash its food in the river. All the others did the same, even those who were not in the vicinity. It was just a consciousness that traveled the world. I think we have this kind of thing happening now. Part of this is being driven by technology such as the Internet. That technology, which on one hand is very destructive, for instance many slaves in the Congo have to mine the minerals to make it possible for these cell phones, and there was a huge amount of energy being used to create the www, but it linked us up. So this is an unusual and positive thing. Although I have to say the 100th monkey idea was popularized before the www. So there was a consciousness already happening between people.  

When people saw us get arrested in 1988, people heard about it in newspapers and by word of mouth and they were so outraged, they started their own Food Not Bombs. Before there was even a publication about how to start a chapter, they just figured out how to do it. But now it is so obvious to many people that the systems are not working anywhere: the systems of power for example, the electoral system in the USA, where it appears to be a greater and greater farce the closer we get to the election, or the climate change crisis where you have all these massive weather events around the world, or the housing foreclosure crisis. All these different things keep building to a higher consciousness that we really need to work together and we need to stop war, stop environmental destruction. Many people see this. One example of the transformation is when Food Not Bombs started in the 1980's most people just thought we were vegans and we were Hindis. They had no idea. They had never heard of people like ourselves sharing free food, but now people understand.

I am at the Veggie Fest now and it is full. Hundreds of people are here. These things are going on all over the world. It is slow, slow work, but with Food Not Bombs, we are trying to link the idea that peace must be for peace with other species and with the Earth. We cannot just be against war and eat meat. We cannot be against war and support coal mining.

A.: It sounds like in your vision there’s a kind of coming apart of the current order and the global capitalist system. That coming part is happening hand in hand with the emergence of a new consciousness, a new way of relating. Is that right?

K.: Yes, I think there is that happening. People all over the world, there is a coming together of all these things. We are really excited about that. There is a combination of this being a world-wide happening that is just amazing and this personal thing that is going on when you go out and share food on the streets. This to me is like celebrating. I know in Santa Cruz, one of my home bases, and in both places when I am at the meals, it is like a huge celebration. All these people are out there enjoying the food, seeing abundance and engaging in conversations about what it is we can do to change society. It is remarkable, the energy. Many of the people are living in sleeping bags in a doorway and just trying to get from point A to point B without being harassed by the police. Yet, at the same time, they too are joining in this vision of making the world a better place. It really is magical.

So you have the personal that I know to be true of many Food Not Bombs people. This is why they do it, because it is just so amazing. Their own experience the first time they went out with the food and shared the meals and saw what an abundance message really does, it gives a sense of hope. When I was young doing political organizing, we would have a big rally and it would be exciting and you may have great speakers, some music. There was a real nice connection with everyone, but boy, you add the abundance of free vegan food to that mix and it's really inspiring.

A.: Are you saying that this movement that is involving so many people in making changes in the world, that you are really bringing it down to the personal level, that when someone shows up and is involved in this celebration of food and abundance that it is very personal and that that personal quality changes people?

K.: Yes, it does. There was a book called Recipes for Disaster and the author called us a gateway to activism. The part that touches your heart so strongly is to be in that environment, it transforms you and it becomes hard to turn back. Generally speaking, it is such a positive experience and what I hear is that people are just changed.

Back to how I got invited to this Veggie Fest: when I first went to an animal rights conference I was not really connected to them. I was a grassroots activist, but they invited me to speak. I had been vegan all these years and handing out vegan food trying to encourage people and influence using things like Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe and others writing about ending world hunger, which all spoke about this being a plant-based solution and also being in harmony with the world. I had experienced killing chickens when I was a child and had also been in turkey processing plants so I had seen what a cruel thing meat was. So I showed up at this event and all these people that I looked up to, that I read about and had seen on TV. I was really excited and these were the grandfathers of animal rights and vegan food and how come I am here? They said, "Well, we happened to walk past your table" or "I listened to Propaganda, the Punk band, and they talked about Food Not Bombs and I was really blown away." You just never know what sort of influence a little project like this can have.

A.: Recalling the movements in the 1960s that were involved with the anti-nuclear movement, against Vietnam War, and Civil Rights and so on. One of the things that happened there was a lot of us were motivated by visions of a better world and the courage to act and do something about it. But what many of us weren't too strong on was knowledge about ourselves. So a lot of unconscious stuff happened, women were often treated in a second-class way. People got involved in their own ideas and pretty defensive and ego driven about their ideas. People really were not working on themselves and that caused all kinds of mischief. I am wondering in the Food Not Bombs movement, is there a way besides working on the world that people are working on themselves?

K.: Well, that can happen in many different ways. A great many of the young people are anarchists so they reject organized religion and things of that nature, but within that community of people, they work on themselves in other ways. For instance, they seek empowerment and being strong so they will have meetings and workshops against the "-isms." They will really work very hard on this and their philosophy since it is an idea of being compassionate. In the Food Not Bombs organization at least, there is a real deep effort to try to be in alignment in a personal way. At the same time, there are also quite a number of people that are from different spiritual backgrounds, that may meditate. The DIY idea that grew out of Food Not Bombs and other social movements has meant that people do seek bettering themselves, of having some kind of balance between their inner world and this service world. The service itself encourages that almost automatically because you are out there with these people. You end up engaging. The longer I do service in any one place for example, my 10 years in SFO, I become like personal friends with people that are living on the street and their demons and efforts to stop using drugs or their struggle to get housing. You end up with the kind of environment for Food Not Bombs activism that really gets you in touch with things. A lot of times the people eating with us will say, "God bless you." Even if that makes the young person recoil, the actual words of that, you cannot hear that kind of thing year after year without seeing that there is some kind of deep connection that you are having with these people, that it means so much to them. I think a lot of people that may reject mainstream religion, they hear this from people living on the streets, we live in a very Christian culture, and what happens is you transcend that. A lot of the people really seek some kind of authentic...I hear this a lot, people like Food Not Bombs because it is authentic. You are out there with people doing stuff. I also hear this in other cultures that are not Christian, but the feelings of the people are similar.

A: What you are saying is the practice of service itself becomes a kind of practice?

K: Correct. I think people do build non-hierarchical, non-exploitive philosophy, but there is this heart that people have as a result of doing this service.

A: Can you share a story from the early days when you were just getting started with Food not Bombs and what that was like?

K: When I started I was an art student at Boston University. I had figured out this really cool thing where I could work in the morning at this organic food store. The store eventually became Whole Foods, but it was originally called Bread and Circus. So I was thinking this is not good that people are not buying all the produce. I do not want to throw it away so I end up with two or three cases of wilted lettuce and odd shaped apples and things like that. So I started taking them to the projects a few blocks away. Across the street were these vacant lots behind MIT and they had started to build these labs and one of them was Draper Lab where they designed nuclear weapons. The people I was giving the food to were telling me how they were designing nuclear weapons over there. They talked about the building and what they were doing. It occurred to me that here were these people that complained about their heating or plumbing not working, yet there is a brand new glass building across the street from them. They were desperate to get all my food that no one would buy and they were so grateful. So it just came to me that we should have food and not bombs, and hence the name came about from that and also some graffiti I was doing outside a grocery store.

So this is one aspect, but another was I was going up to the anti-nuclear protests in New Hampshire. I would go up there. We would get arrested. One of my friends, Brian, got arrested on serious assault charges so we decided that we would organize a defense committee and one of the things we wanted to do was raise money. So we would do bake sales and we made like $4 or $5 outside the Student Union and we were really like, we are never going to put together a defense fund with this. I had this old van, which I was using to help people move. I called it Smooth Move, and these people were throwing out a poster, which said, "Wouldn't it be a beautiful day when the schools have all the money and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomb?" So I took that idea and we went and got military uniforms and started to tell people we were trying to buy a bomb so please buy our cookies.

The final thing that becomes Food not Bombs, the street theatre part really became a hook for people to ask questions. So then we decided to dress up as hobos. We had found out the Bank of Boston was funding the building of nuclear power plants so we will go to the stockholders' meeting and have a big pot of soup out of the groceries I was recovering. We went to the shelter and I explained what we were doing and people there thought this was great so all these people turned up at lunch. Maybe 75 of them along with the business people and stockholders and our friends were all eating outside of this stockholders' meeting. It was so magical that we decided to quit our jobs and just do this. The actual homeless guys said there was not food for people in Boston at this time. There were no soup kitchens happening anymore.

A.: What I am struck with is the imagery of some of the parts of the story, of the inequitable distribution of resources. The military gets the big shiny building and there are people whose plumbing does not work. So you are creating the space where everybody shares resources. Another thing that really strikes me is that sense of street theatre. It seems so much of when you were starting was about street theatre.

K.: We were super influenced by theatre. We had many friends that were very involved in the living theatre coming out of New York. The living theatre had this philosophy that was really amazing and part of it was that the public themselves walking by would be part of the theatre. It would not be clear who the actors are and who are not the actors, hence the name living theater. Other groups that influenced were Bread and Puppet who themselves had been influenced by living theatre who had been around since the 1950's. We really had a theater background and as an artist I had this experience by looking at the art galleries encouraged by my art teacher. I went down to visit these galleries and I would see these yuppies looking at this art. Some of it not very good and they were talking about how the art was increasing in value and how buying art was a really good investment and it made me cringe. Around that same time I hear Dr. Helen Caldicott talk about Nuclear Arms and then I thought that is what I should do. I should have my art be public and about something that is meaningful. I was already trying to bring punk to America from England, so I was thinking to create a whole art culture and movement that speaks to the way I felt.

A. On the Food Not Bombs website, there is great artwork. This must be your artwork?

K. Yes it is.

A: You have been at this for 36 years and you have seen a lot. What was your biggest personal challenge on this journey?

K.: As you can probably imagine, facing 25 years to life in prison was extremely stressful and prior to what went on in that period of time was increasing brutality. So something that physically and emotionally impacts for quite some time was that I was captured by the police and they took me to police HQ. They would rip my clothes off and lift me by my arms and legs and rip my tendons and ligaments and yell obscenities at me in a dark room. Some people were kicking me in the side and in the head and they would stuff me in a little cage that was hanging from the ceiling and I would be in there for three days. They eventually let me out with just my pants on to the cold rainy streets of San Francisco at 3 a.m. in the morning. This happened to me three times. I learned over time that I was being held in room 136 on the first floor and that this was an interrogation room for the San Francisco Police Intelligence Unit, yet they never ever asked me any questions. They just were doing this to terrorize me. When I finally got the court case itself, this was so stressful because they would bring riot police to the courtroom. It did not seem like there was a possibility of a fair trial. I just had the sense that I could spend the rest of my life in jail. And of course, I am thinking for the rest of my life I will be in chains in an orange jumpsuit and people will forget about me and I will be in this horrible world forever.

A.: This is hard to imagine in 1995 San Francisco. Why were they so extreme? Why did you represent such a big threat to them?

K.: In 1988, when we were first arrested on August 15th and then that Thanksgiving, a number of volunteers came back from vacation and a National Guardsperson had seen them wearing a Food not Bombs button with the purple fist and carrot and they would say, "Wow, we just studied that group in counter terrorism school. That is America's most hardcore terrorist group." Then we were getting indications that Chevron, Bank of America and Lockheed Martin and others were concerned that the increased number of homeless people and the fact that Food Not Bombs was starting up in different cities was a threat to their profits and people would demand that money was spent on food, education, health and things like that and diverted away from military spending. So we heard rumor of that. There were 14 reports that the National Guard had produced saying we were the most hardcore terrorist group in the US. In 2009, I was on tour and spoke at Princeton and I go back to my hotel and turn on C-SPAN and there is a lecture about who is more dangerous, the people that share vegan food in the streets or al-queda! In the end, their conclusion was the people who share vegan meals are friendly, empowering and people are really attracted to what they are doing. As a result there could be an economic impact, where money could be diverted from military spending towards education, healthcare, and other social services and therefore, we would not have the financial means to defend the country from enemies and that made the vegan meals more threatening and more dangerous.

A: Is there a particular personal lesson that has come to you, what keeps you going and focused and on target and optimistic?

K.: I could go on and one for that, but one of the things is sticking to the basics of your idea and doing it over and over again for a long, long time. Just for the lesson of political organization and global transformation. That is just a practical thing I have learned. As far as me continuing to do this, Food Not Bombs, every aspect of it is so rewarding, the personal relationships and the celebration of doing the meal. That is enough that makes you just want to come back and do that because you see people that have difficulty in getting food or have not eaten in four days and blown away that they are going to get all the food they want and there are no limitations. These kinds of things keep you going for a long time. Just the challenge of doing something with no resources. Part of the whole idea of this was we wanted a model that could be done by anybody no matter how poor or wealthy. It would be without limits, that challenge has been interesting.

There are also some things that are deeper that help keep me going, one of them is that I grew up in the national parks. My grandfather was a park ranger and a naturalist and my father was a naturalist and then ultimately I was for a short while, in growing up in the wilderness with people that knew about natural history, anthropology and so on. I had these amazing transformational experiences. Two of them, which are at the core, which keep me going, the first was my father gave me Walden by Thoreau. I had just learned to read so I read the short part first on why he refused to pay taxes for the Mexican War. This really changed me. This took me to read everything that inspired or was inspired out of Walden. The second thing was when I was living in the Grand Canyon I was at kindergarten through to 3rd grade and my grandfather was close friends with the elders at Old Oraibi, which is one of the oldest settlements in North America and they would do a snake dance once a year and I would go to the dance. We were the only White family that would go. I would see this thing that had happened for thousands of years on this land. The energy of that was really amazing and it so affected me.

A.: There are so many things that weave into your life, that keep you going and certainly a lot for us to think about. How can we at the larger ServiceSpace community support your work?

K: There are a few things, but we are a volunteer group so start there. If you have time to volunteer at your local Food Not Bombs group or to start one that would be huge. If you do not have time for that, but you have resources, if you know how to connect us with sources of food, that is being discarded or donations of cooking equipment or rice or you could donate on-line. Right now I am trying to raise a bit of money to send this radio to Standing Rock. Recently we have been doing relief work in Indonesia on cyclone relief so you can go on-line and donate at But really it is about getting out on the street with us and helping us on the street. Volunteers are critical. The more volunteers, the more the word gets out. Other things like if you have access to free printing, particularly if it is recyclable paper, that really helps us, access to solar cells.

A.: What strikes me most from listening to you speak is that there is so little gap between when you come across a good idea, and your enthusiastic, whole-hearted putting it into practice. This is a truly rare thing, and the world would be a greater place if we all practiced it. Thank you so much for being here today!


For more inspiration tune into this Saturday's Awakin Call with Non-Violent Communication facilitator Thom Bond. RSVP and more details here.


This interview was edited by LuAnn Cooley. Awakin Calls is a weekly interview series and community podcast that highlights the work and inner journeys of individuals who are transforming our world in large and small ways. Each call features a moderated conversation with a unique guest. Past interviewees include a calligraphy artist, a path-breaking neurosurgeon, an evolution biologist, a pioneering venture capitalist, and a socially conscious hip-hop rapper.  Awakin Calls are ad-free, available at no charge, and an all-volunteer-run offering of ServiceSpace, a global platform founded on the principle of "Change Yourself. Change the World."        

1 Past Reflections