Food Not Bombs

Starting A Food Not Bombs

Taking personal responsibility and doing something about the problems of our society can be both empowering and intimidating. Voting for the best candidate or giving money to your favorite charity are worthwhile activities but many people want to do more. What to do and how to get started is hard to discover, especially with social problems as large as homelessness, hunger, and militarism. This handbook is will assist you in getting started on a path towards taking personal direct action on these issues.

Above all, the Food Not Bombs experience is an opportunity for self-empowerment. In addition to the obvious political message we are trying to convey, the two major components of the day to day work of Food Not Bombs are the recovery and redistribution of surplus food and the feeding of the hungry. Political organizing is more rewarding if it produces both greater political awareness and direct service.

At every step along the way, you will be faced with many choices, some of which we will describe in this handbook, others of which will be unique to your situation. You will need to make the decisions for yourselves which are the best for your local operation. We can tell you from our experience that it will be both hard work and a lot of fun. We will try to share with you those things we have learned which might assist you and help you avoid problems we have already encountered. This handbook is a beginning point from which to take off on your own adventure.

This handbook is based on more than ten years of experience. But that does not give us all the answers. Every day brings more challenges and new learning opportunities. The Food Not Bombs experience is a living, dynamic adventure which expands with every person who participates. Even today, as more and more Food Not Bombs groups start in other cities, we are discovering that each group brings with it new ideas, new visions, and new ways of developing its own identity. This handbook contains only the most basic information necessary for you to start your group on its way.

Seven Steps to Organizing a Local Food Not Bombs

At the outset, starting a Food Not Bombs might seem like more than you can handle. Work on the basics, taking one step at a time. There is no need to feel pressured into accomplishing everything all at once. It might take a couple of weeks to get things rolling or it may take months. One person cannot be a Food Not Bombs group, but one person can be the starter of one.

Once you have made the decision to start a local Food Not Bombs group, pick a meeting date, time, and place and gather together everyone who is interested to talk about what you would like to do. You might start with a group of friends, or members of an existing group, or it could be people who respond to posters in which you announce your intentions.

The following is a step by step process to get your food operation up and running. Because of your unique situation, you may need to add steps or ignore or reorder steps. Follow the path you feel will work best for your group.

Step 1: Start by getting a phone number and a mailing address. By using either a voice mailbox or an answering machine, you can have an out-going message with information about the next meeting time and place and you can receive messages so you never miss a call. Likewise, use a commercial mailbox or post office box for your permanent address.

Step 2: Next, make flyers announcing the existence of a local Food Not Bombs. By handing them out at events, posting them around town, and/or mailing them out to your friends, you will get additional volunteers. It is helpful to have regularly scheduled weekly meetings or always know the date of the next meeting.

Step 3: Arrange for the use of a vehicle. Between the members of your group, there might be enough vehicles of the right size for your needs. If not, you might be able to borrow a van or truck from a sympathetic church group or similar organization. If you are very lucky, you could be able to find someone to donate one to you. And, if none of the above leads to obtaining a vehicle, you could always hold fundraising events to raise money specifically for the purchase of a van.

Step 4: With flyers in hand, begin looking for sources of food. The first places to approach are the local food co-ops and health food stores. These types of stores tend to be supportive and are a good place to practice your approach. Tell them you plan to give the food to shelters and soup kitchens to feed hungry people. If they are interested and willing, arrange for a regular time to pick-up the food each day or as often as is practical. Where it is appropriate, leave literature which explains what Food Not Bombs does.

Step 5: Deliver the bulk food you collect to shelters and meal kitchens. It is important to get to know the food pantries and soup kitchens in your area. Learn where they are located, whom they serve, and how many they serve. This information will help you plan your delivery route and distribute appropriate types and amounts of food to each program. It is usually desirable to arrange a regular delivery schedule with each kitchen.

Step 6: Once this network becomes established, start to skim some food out of the flow without disrupting the program. With this food, start to prepare meals to serve on the streets. At first, go to rallies and demonstrations. There, the group can recruit more volunteers, collect donations, and lift the spirits of those at the event. Giving out meals at a rally builds community and supports the cause in a very direct way.

Step 7: Once enough people are involved, consider serving meals one day a week to the homeless on the street in a visible way. Cooking and serving food on the street builds community within the group and is hard work, but also great fun. Pick locations which are highly visible. Part of our mission is to help make the "invisible homeless" more visible. We also want to reach out to everyone with our political message 'food not bombs' and we want to be very accessible.

The "Office"

In general, it is the Food Not Bombs style to operate on as low a financial level as possible. Always strive to get the most out of your resources. One way to keep operating expenses low is to use only a mailbox and an answering service as your office. Thus, by not having an office, there is no need to staff the office with valuable volunteer time. This allows volunteers to spend more time out in the street. Our tables, whether serving meals or distributing information, become the "office" where our group business is conducted and where people who want to meet us can find us.

One of our goals for doing street work is to bring people with different economic backgrounds directly into contact with each other. If your "office" is on the street, then you are very accessible, all your actions are public, and the people who are forced to live on the streets will, over time, develop a great deal of respect for your group. By having your "office" on the street, you will experience directly a piece of street life and you will develop first hand knowledge of the popular opinions on the issues of the day. The cost for establishing this part of the Food Not Bombs operation is affordable for any group.

Decision Making and Leadership

One of the goals of Food Not Bombs is to create opportunities for self-empowerment. The way to do this within the group is to encourage every member to participate in decision making and accept leadership roles.

When everyone participates in the discussion of an idea, trust is developed and people feel valued and committed to the result. A proposal is stronger when everyone works together to create the best possible decision for the group. Any idea can be considered, but only those ideas which everyone thinks are in the best interests of the group should be adopted.

Many progressive groups avoid having leaders who might dominate the group. However, it is a mistake to think a group does not need leadership. To avoid having power concentrated in the hands of a few or entrenched leaders, encourage leadership skills in every member of the group and rotate leadership roles. This can be accomplished by holding leadership skill-building trainings and by encouraging and supporting people to accept leadership roles, especially those who are traditionally overlooked.

Generally, this process is called consensus. There are several models of consensus which your group might choose to adopt. It is most important, however, that whatever process you use, it is clear and consistent so all can participate fully. (See bibliography for resources.)


Outreach is very important. It is less expensive and more effective than one might imagine. The appendix of this book has a recruiting flyer you can use which has been effective in attracting new people to Food Not Bombs. You can use this copy by putting your phone number and address in the appropriate spots or you can create your own. This and other flyers can then be put on bulletin boards in local schools, cafes, health food stores, bookstores, and launderettes. Post recruitment flyers on a regular basis; it is good to continually bring in new people with fresh ideas and enthusiasm.

In addition to posting in public spaces, visit all the peace and justice organizations in your community. Leave your flyers and collect their literature which you can place on your information table.

Also go to all the soup kitchens, pantries, shelters, and advocacy groups for those suffering from economic injustice, and distribute your literature. Don't be discouraged by a lukewarm reception. At first, these groups might view Food Not Bombs as competition for scare resources. Or they may be strongly opposed to connecting the issues of hunger, homelessness and economic injustice with (other) political issues such as militarism. Many direct service agencies accept the role of caregiver to those most oppressed in our society without challenging the root causes of the oppression. They prefer to keep a low profile and support the status quo and they will be very fearful of anyone who does challenge the system. However, because the vision of Food Not Bombs is the creation of abundance by recovering surplus food, the free food will be a way to reach out to them and gradually win their support. This kind of outreach will become the foundation of widespread community support which might be very valuable to your group in the future.

As your effort grows, you can organize and sponsor special events which will attract more folks to join in the work and fun. Examples of these kinds of events are concerts, poetry readings, rallies, lectures, and film festivals. Before these events, be sure to call all the press listed in the yellow pages in your town and invite them to come. Even though the coverage can sometimes be unsympathetic, it is still valuable to have Food Not Bombs mentioned in the press. In our experience, most people understand the concept 'food not bombs' and are not misled by negative reporting.

At events, a special attention-grabber is the display of a huge banner proclaiming "Food Not Bombs". The banner is very useful when the media is taking pictures, because, if nothing else, the words "Food Not Bombs" will be displayed. You can use the Food Not Bombs logo of a purple fist holding a carrot as much as you want. The national office has buttons, bumper stickers, t-shirts, and banners with this logo for you to use for fundraising and promotion. (See national contact list in the appendix.)

Food Collection

Food recovery is the back-bone of the Food Not Bombs operation. It might at first appear to be a major challenge to discover sources of surplus food, but it mostly takes is confidence and patience. Every business in the food industry is a potential source of recoverable food; from wholesale to retail, production to distribution. Sometimes it may take some creativity and persistence to convince a stubborn manager to allow you to have some "waste" food, but in most instances, the businesses will be very cooperative.

You will need to decide if you want the business owners or managers to know that some of the food will be used for political organizing or even the name Food Not Bombs. At some stores, this will not be an issue; at others, it might be better left unsaid, until they get to know you better.

Start by making arrangements to collect food at organic produce warehouses, bakeries, and natural food stores. Ask the workers at these businesses if they have any edible food which they regularly throw away and, if so, would they be willing to give it to you. Be sure to point out to them that by collecting this food, you will be saving them money on their waste disposal bill. They will certainly be aware of how expensive it is to have this surplus hauled away as waste and of how the costs keep growing each year as more and more landfills become exhausted. One of the by-products of our program is the reduction of waste in our society.

While in the process of collecting contacts in the food industry, you should be determining the availability of drivers and vehicles. There needs to be at least one volunteer to drive each day. Make a schedule which is convenient to both store and driver. It is important to be flexible but also reliable: businesses will be hesitant to participate if they do not feel they can rely on this method of "waste' removal on a regular basis. Take time to make friends with the workers at the sites where food is collected. It is these workers who make day-to-day decisions about how much food is recovered and they can make an effort to recover even more food if they feel comfortable with you.

It is a tradition with Food Not Bombs to always be on time. Therefore, do not over-extend yourself. It is actually more common to get too much food than not enough. But only do as much as is comfortable; some recovery of food is better than no recovery of food.

The variety of food which can be recovered is unlimited. Be creative. Any food which is perishable is going to be intentionally over-stocked so there will be a regular surplus which is destined to be wasted. Look for sources of surplus bagels, bread and pastries, organic fruits and vegetables, tofu and some packaged foods. Sometimes, you might need to buy non-perishables like rice and beans, miso, condiments and spices at natural foods stores. Often these stores will supply these types of food for free.

Eventually, work your way up to collecting at warehouses, farms, and from wholesale distributors. The volume of food available to recover is immense. Be selective: take what you can use which is of the highest quality. In many places, there is no need to recover commercial produce because there is plenty of organic produce to recover! In fact, one of our political messages is that there is more edible food being thrown away each day by the food industry than there are hungry people to eat it.

Food Distribution

At first, deliver the bulk food you collect to soup kitchens and pantries in your area. From your earlier research and contacts, it is likely you will already know which kitchens are interested in receiving food. Also deliver bulk food to food pantries, striking workers, day-care centers, battered women shelters, refugees, and the like. Make contact with organizations which already work directly in the community. Ask if their staff would take responsibility for equitable distribution of free food once a week. Since they already have a base of operations in the community, the staff knows who is in need, how great their need is, and how best to distribute it to them. Encourage them to use the free food distribution program as a way to increase participation in their other programs. Use the food as an organizing tool. Sometimes, Food Not Bombs organizes distribution of bulk food at housing projects or on street corners. You might also give out bulk food along with the prepared meal at your food tables. One of our goals is to encourage the awareness of the abundance of food and undermine the market of scarcity which places profits before people.

The Kitchen

Once you have this network of collection and distribution in operation, begin using some of the recovered food to prepare hot meals. You will need to find a kitchen to sue and obtain several pieces of equipment which are necessary for feeding large numbers of people and are not found in the average kitchen. A full equipment list can be found in the section on Recipes.

There are several methods of finding suitable kitchen space. Sometimes it is possible to arrange to use the kitchen in a community center, place of worship, or public building. A large kitchen in a collective house or a number of average-size kitchens might be sufficient. Sometimes cooking right on the street in a field kitchen is the best solution. Each situation has its advantages and disadvantages. The demands of your meal distribution program determine your kitchen needs. Often, a combination of kitchen spaces is necessary for different aspects of your schedule. You might use a church kitchen for your weekly meal to the homeless, a field kitchen for a large rally in a park, and a volunteers kitchen for a catered lunch; the key is in finding the right size kitchen for each event.

Since most Food Not Bombs groups do some amount of cooking outdoors, it is a good idea to acquire a camp stove. Propane seems to be the best fuel for the cooking in field kitchens. The tanks can be refilled and even the smaller ones last a long time on one filling. It is worthwhile to obtain a strong, heavy-duty stove. It might cost more but it will last longer and will be safer with the large pots. This and all the other equipment needed for food preparation and serving can be obtained at restaurant supply stores, thrift stores, yard sales, kitchen auctions, and friends. (See the appendix under Equipment Lists for more details.)

In general, the most important piece of equipment is the cooking pots. You will need all different sizes, but the most valuable are the very large pots of 40 quarts or more. Generally, a couple of hundred people can be fed from a pot this size, depending upon what is prepared in it. But these pots are hard to come by; most people who have pots this size will not loan them out. The cheapest pots to buy are aluminum, but we discourage their use because of toxicity. If you must use aluminum pots, never prepare miso or tomato based recipes in them; the aluminum will corrode and leach into the food. Try to have stainless steel pots donated to you. Once you have a collection of pots (and lids), be very careful with them. It is not uncommon to lose pots between the kitchen and the vehicle or the vehicle and the serving table. Also, try to avoid having the pots in a situation which might lead to arrest. Transfer the food into smaller (less valuable) pots or plastic buckets in these situations.

Therefore, another valuable piece of equipment is the 5 gallon plastic bucket. These can usually be obtained for free from natural food stores and co-ops. Ask them to save and give you peanut butter buckets, tofu buckets, and other large plastic containers which food is delivered in which they do not need or have to return. Don't forget to collect the lids, too. These containers are valuable for food storage, transportation, and serving and can also be used for many other purposes. Since they are fairly easy to get, they also are good to use in situations where you cannot be sure they will be returned to you.

Food Preparation

The major issue to address when considering preparing food at low cost for large amounts of people is one of logistics. Getting the proper amount of food, the necessary equipment, a suitable kitchen, and the cooking team all together at the same time might sometimes seem like a miracle. But it can be done!

Each local chapter will develop its own method of food preparation. The following is a general guide.

The volunteer cooking team usually meets at the kitchen a few hours before the meal is scheduled to be served. They often help unload the food and equipment from the Food Not Bombs vehicle. Always wash your hands with soap before cooking. Plan the menu by looking at what food you have and how many people you are planning to feed. Sort out all the useful food and wash it. The most time-consuming job in this process is washing and cutting the vegetables. Each cooking team usually operates with whatever style of management that is comfortable to them. Sometimes, one person becomes "the cook" for the whole team. Other times, each person takes one dish and prepares it from start to finish. Or, the team may choose to do everything cooperatively. The recipes you use can be ones you already know or they can be from the recipe chapter of this book. Once the meal is prepared, the cooking team cleans the kitchen, packages the food for transportation, and loads it into the Food Not Bombs vehicle for delivery to the serving site.

Sometimes the serving team and the cooking team are the same people; usually they are different people. The serving team arrives at the serving site and organizes the distributing of the food and the staffing of the literature table. Always try to have a hand-washing bucket (with soap) and rinse bucket (with just a little bleach) so the volunteers can wash their hands before serving. Try to keep the food away from the literature. If a long line develops, have someone go up and down the line and hand out bread or muffins or maybe something to drink (on hot days) so the wait is not too unbearable. This also helps reduce the tension created by the fear that the food might run out. If you can find musicians or other street performers to come and perform while you're serving, this will also reduce tensions and create a very positive, festive atmosphere. The serving team is also responsible for cleaning up both the site and the equipment and returning the equipment to wherever it is stored.

The collection of cash donations at the food table is an ongoing debate. Sometimes, it is completely out of place to ask for donations. In other situations, people insist on being allowed to contribute to the collective work. In any event, always encourage the idea that everyone can have as much food as they want, without regard to their ability to pay for it. Food is a right, not a privilege.

Outdoor Tables and Field Kitchens

At every outdoor event, the first decision the group needs to make is where to place the tables. There are many important issues to consider. If possible, it helps to have seen the location ahead of time. At demonstrations, having the food table as close as possible to the focal point of the demonstration has been very successful. Being close to the action encourages people to stay involved and not drift away. Sometimes the most desirable location is the one with the most foot traffic; other times, it is the most visible, accessible location for people without homes. However, it is good to be sensitive to nearby restaurants and vendors with similar types of food. They might complain and have your operation shutdown if they feel it is in competition with them.

The following diagrams offer two possible lay-outs for set up of your field kitchen. One is more basic, involving a minimum of equipment. The other involves more equipment and would be able to pass a health department inspection in most cities. In general, Food Not Bombs believes that our work does not require any permits. However, the city or the police will use the permit issue as a way to harass us in an attempt to shut us down. Therefore, it is sometimes a good idea to have a fully equipped field kitchen. There may still be attempts to shut you down, but you can point out that it is not a health but a political issue which they are raising. It is the Food Not Bombs position that we have a right to give away free food anytime, anywhere without any permission from the state.

Enhancing a Food Not Bombs

Street Theater

From the very beginning, we saw all of our street activity as theater. This included not only our food tables, but also our literature tables, our presence at other peoples' events, etc. We recognized that the personal is political and the political becomes personal. We wanted to dramatize the reality of the militarization of our society by highlighting the social costs and the human suffering. We created opportunities to expose this injustices through soup lines, by depicting military types holding a bake sale to by a B-1 bomber, offering the "tofu challenge" instead of the "Pepsi Challenge", and even a silent theater piece in which a person dressed as a paper maché missile chased a person in a paper maché world, threatening to destroy it.

The limits on what kind of theater you present are only your imagination and your pocketbook. Scenarios have included anything from setting up a food and literature table with some musicians to full scale productions with amplified sound, lights shows, slide projectors, puppets, and speakers all happening at once around your food and literature tables. Sometimes these events are planned entirely by Food Not Bombs; sometimes they are organized by other groups and we just attend with food and literature. Do not forget to include your audience in the performance whenever possible.

Because we have always approached our work as theater, it has always been easy to adapt to various situations. We recognize and value the interconnectedness of progressive issues. We try to expose how militarism and imperialism influence our everyday lives. When we participate in an event highlighting a particular issue, we try to show the way in which this issue connects with our issues. Food is often an excellent bridge or connector.

Our literature reflects our wide scope of concerns. We promote and support many events in our community by carrying their flyers on our tables. We strive to be as visible as possible. This means searching for locations to set up a table. Sometimes the ideal situation is in a park or plaza. Other times it is important to set up outside a bank, a corporate office, a government building or military installation. How often to set up is equally important. The more we are outside, in the public eye, the better our message gets out. We encourage groups to be as regular as possible to establish a reputation. Often, the Food Not Bombs table is a landmark for activists and street folks looking to connect with the movement in a new city.


Food Not Bombs has had a long-standing tradition of being very relaxed about fundraising. We prefer receiving money in small amounts, rather than large and difficult to manage donations of money from people who might be quite distant from us geographically or politically. We feel that it is better to have a wide base of support from the community with whom we have direct contact than to rely on a few foundations or wealthy people who might manipulated or pressure us to cater to their special interests. While this kind of grass-roots fundraising is more difficult and time-consuming, it allow us to remain on the cutting edge of the political issues of our time, and also requires constant contact with our supporters.

Non-profit, Tax-exempt Status

People often ask if we are a non-profit, tax exempt corporation. Generally, we are not interested in the bureaucracy needed to maintain such an organization. Sometimes, you might use an "umbrella" to assist in arranging a particular donation of money that specifically needs to be given to a non-profit, tax-exempt group. This is fine and it is usually not too difficult to find a tax-exempt organization to do this for you. Specifically, do not seek permission from any government agency to engage in the work you do. Once a group becomes a tax-exempt organization, the I.R.S. has the right to oversee all aspects of its operation and limits much of what it can do. Rather than try to hide from them, we prefer to ignore them.

Buttons and Bumper Stickers

One way to raise funds is to set-up literature tables with buttons, stickers, books, and t-shirts at high volume pedestrian traffic areas or political events. It has a tremendous effect to be regularly out in the public eye, exercising your right to free speech and collecting donations. For some groups, receiving donations for buttons and bumper stickers is a major source of income. When people ask how much, use the phrase "one dollar, more if you can less if you can't". Purposefully create a loose atmosphere so that people donate what they can without pressure or embarrassment. You will often raise more money and awareness if volunteers stand behind the literature and directs peoples attention to a particular flyer or asks them a questions like " have you heard about our next event?" (Note: At large outdoor events, remember to take the money out of the donation bucket periodically as the day passes so someone doesn't grab the bucket and run off with all that you brought in that day.)


Sometimes groups will ask us to provide food for their events. It might be hot soup at an outdoor rally or lunch for a conference. Usually, the sponsoring group gives us a donation of a dollar or more per person. If they have special arrangements (like transportation or housing), they might ask for additional contributions directly from the people served; this is up to the organizers. However, if the event is outdoors or open to the general public, the food is always free and never denied to someone because of lack of money. At some events, the food is cooked at the site; at others, it is transported already cooked. At all events, try to be on time. Obviously, it is especially important when you are feeding 100 people lunch at noon during a conference. Usually, it is possible to bring your literature table with you and set it up next to your food table or the lobby or hallway.

Concerts and Events

Food Not Bombs groups often sponsor concerts and events to have fun and raise money. If you plan ahead, your event can be a big success. Whether for rallies, concerts, or poetry readings, it is important to find a location and date at least 6 weeks to 2 months in advance. When making the arrangements, be sure to get the correct addresses of all parties involved so you can stay in touch. Send a letter confirming the date, time and other arrangements to the managers of the location as soon as you can. Once you have the space confirmed, contact the performers and send them letters confirming the date, time, location and duration of their performance. It would be an unfortunate experience if the performers did not show simply because they never received letters of confirmation. If the event goes smoothly, the performers will support you in the future. If you are having a concert, ask the bands if they have sound equipment and a sound person. If not, they may know someone who does. Work out a complete schedule in advance with specific times for each performer including set up and sound check. Be sure to send the schedule to all parties involved including the people whose space you are using.

Its also a good idea to send out flyers advertising the event to local organizations six weeks in advance. An announcement in their monthly newsletter calendar listings can be very valuable. In addition, post flyers all over town and put them on your table for one month in advance. If possible, send 30 second public service announcements to local radio stations. Make a follow-up phone call to be sure they received it and suggest it be put in their public service announcement folder.

At the event, set up a literature table with buttons, stickers, and shirts. Depending in the type of event, you may want to ask for a donation at the door or pass the hat during the event. At bigger events, you may want to create a program, which can also be an opportunity for fundraising. The program itself can be sold at the event and you can sell ads in it to local groups and businesses. And of course, a table with 'refreshments' would be a good opportunity to raise additional donations.

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