In an unassuming house on a block in Highland Square a contingent of people gathered on a Saturday in March. They have been meeting each week for more than a year to cook a vegan meal to distribute to anyone who needed it in Grace Park.
This is the Akron chapter of Food Not Bombs, an international cooperative that reclaims food that would otherwise have gone to waste due to reaching its sell-by date, and share it with anyone looking for a home cooked meal.
Food Not Bombs has been around since 1980, and the Akron chapter has existed since 1999. Not only have they been serving food to those in need in Grace Park, they’ve also provided food to protesters. September 2018 found them on Kent State University’s campus distributing water to counter-protestors at a gun rights rally; in January 2019, they supported the Akron Women’s March.
Each Saturday at noon, whoever is available out of the 15 or so people who make up the core group of Akron’s Food Not Bombs convene at the home of Dondrea Allen. They begin preparing a full, hot meal. On the day I visited, vegetarian stir fry, rice, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fresh coffee were on the menu.
When I walked into the house, the stir fry was beginning to heat up, the coffee was brewed and a supply run was in progress for soy sauce and PB&J ingredients. Dondrea was in the kitchen with Brianna Foraker poring over what would become the meal for the day.
While they cooked, they told me about what brought them to Food Not Bombs.
“It kind of just aligned with the kind of solidarity work that I had been doing already with United Students Against Sweatshops and then Books to Prisoners,” Brianna said. “I came for those reasons, ideological reasons, and then I stayed for the community.”
United Students Against Sweatshops is a youth-led workers’ rights organization and Books to Prisoners is an activist organization that sends books to people serving time in penitentiaries.
Dondrea had been aware of Food Not Bombs for a while, but hadn’t had the opportunity to join until after she graduated from Kent State. Brianna had asked her if she wanted to join as well as host the Akron chapter each week and she accepted. “I was also a part of United Students Against Sweatshops when I was in school, so I was looking for something similar after I graduated. Keep the mission alive, so I can be involved in something,” Dondrea said.
Some of the food Food Not Bombs uses is reclaimed from grocery stores. Some is provided by individuals who drop food off at the house. Akron Coffee Roasters donates the coffee.
From time to time they put on a benefit concert with Books to Prisoners, and the money raised will benefit both groups.
“It’s hard, you know? We’re not an organization that has any funding. It’s basically just people coming together and, like, spending their time to do this work,” Brianna said
After two hours of cooking, it was time to get things ready for transport to Grace Park. The stir fry and rice were transferred to a serving tray like that used by catering companies to keep food warm. The peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were placed in a tin and covered with aluminum foil. After all the food was covered the occupants of the house emptied outside into the sunlight and into their cars.
I gave Brianna a lift to the park. As we pulled away from the house and fell in line behind the other two cars in the caravan, she told me about other ways Akron Food Not Bombs helps serve people.
As the weather gets colder, Food Not Bombs distributes warm clothes to the people they meet in Grace Park. “Our general call, when we ask for donations, is not just food. We also ask for utensils, coats and medical supplies,” Brianna explained.
Acquiring medical supplies is an ongoing project. The first person I talked to mentioned that he had been given some fentanyl test strips and Brianna remarked on a desire to get access to Narcan, a drug used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
Another effort is Food Not Bombs Mobile. Essentially, if there are too many volunteers on hand than needed at Grace Park, they’ll dispatch some people outfitted with coffee and to-go plates that gets handed out to people on the street.
When we arrived at the park, the serving station was erected with an efficiency that betrayed the inherent professionalism and sense of duty that runs through the group. Emissaries were dispatched to the Haven of Rest and within minutes people began to drift over from across the street.
Feeling out of place I wandered through the crowd, picking up snatches of conversation. One woman was going through the box of donated clothes. She was staying at the Haven but had recently been approved for an apartment. Another was sharing her story about how she had been served by San Francisco’s Food Not Bombs chapter years earlier.
And then it was over. Just a minute earlier people had been milling around the table draped with a Food Not Bombs banner, waiting to be served. Now there were only a handful. Some of them stood around eating the vegetarian stir-fry. Most everyone had departed.
I took a couple of pictures of the group of activists standing behind their table in the cold, smiling, two of them flanking the banner draped table. Then, almost as quickly as things had been set up, they were torn down. The leftover food was loaded; the remaining clothes were boxed up and returned to the car. The convoy took off back to the house. There was nothing left in the park to indicate that anything noteworthy had happened aside from the addition of a couple people still standing where the table had been, eating a home cooked meal on a cool, sunny Saturday afternoon.
Derek Kreider is a writer, musician, and construction worker hailing from Springfield Township.