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Dennis J Bernstein interviews Keith McHenry, founder of Food Not Bombs

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From Keith McHenry, CoFounder of Food Not Bombs, at the Democratic National Convention Protest in Denver
Keith McHenry, CoFounder of Food Not Bombs, at the Democratic National Convention Protest in Denver
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Food Not Bombs is a national organization that distributes free food to the growing armies of hungry Americans from coast to coast. While you would think that the government would support such a noble cause, Food Not Bombs food-givers face regular arrest and possible jail time for distributing food to the very hungry, a growing number of children and veterans among them.

As of this interview, In Florida, a 90-year-old member of Food Not Bombs is in jail for food-giving. I spoke to Keith McHenry, the founder of Food not Bombs, on Friday, in a post election interview in which he said "while it was bad under the Democrats, it's going to probably get a lot worse" now that the republicans are in control of both houses.

McHenry himself has been arrested many times, and watched mountains of food be thrown into the dumpster after his arrest. I was on the scene once when police arrested McHenry on Christmas eve for giving food to the hungry in downtown San Francisco.

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DB: It's good to have you with us Keith. First tell us your response to the election. It's been a hard year for Food Not Bombs, and people have been hungrier than ever. More people hungry. Give us your thoughts on this day after election brings the extreme right into power.

KM: Well, you know, sadly, the Democrats, leading up to this, a lot of Democratic mayors and leaders, including Nancy Pelosi and Feinstein have been actually against Food Not Bombs, and against feeding the hungry. And some of our most liberal governments, and democratic governments have passed laws against the sharing of free food in public, including Philadelphia, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando. And these are supposedly the bastions of liberalness in these areas.

But on the other hand, having the Republicans sweep the Senate and the House and many other state legislatures, it looks like things like, cuts in food stamps will be on the increase, more cuts in education...cuts in the very things that keep people out of poverty, or help people that are living in poverty. So I would say that the elections will mark an increase in homelessness, poverty, and in wars, unfortunately, that seems to be the direction it's going.

DB: Remind us Keith, remind us what Food Not Bombs does specifically and then talk about some of the encounters, some of the struggles that you face as you continue to try and give free food to hungry people, and the folks who work with you keep getting attacked for it.

KM: Yeah, there seems to be, in the last several years, particularly since 2007, but it's escalating. They're and...I think after Occupy this even grew even more dramatic. There's a policy nationwide to limit or ban the sharing of free food outside in public, and a lot of it is definitely directed at Food Not Bombs. Although, sadly, even the now church groups and so on, are being roped into this. Anybody sharing free meals outside in public in the United States face laws that will restrict them and make it illegal.

This just happened in Orlando where they made...I mean in Fort Lauderdale where they made the law that restricts the sharing of free food in public within 500 feet of a residence, and 500 feet of somebody else providing food if you could even find a place. And it essentially, from what local activists are reporting, bans the sharing of free food outside.

And yet there's this huge increase of homeless people in the south Florida region who are seeking food. And there's a huge increase in...just in poverty alone. So it's not just the people coming to Food Not Bombs, and these other meal programs are all homeless, although many are, which is really tragic. There the families that are working in the communities who are going to be affected even more intensely by the cuts that are probably going to come down with a Mitch McConnell Senate, in the next two years.

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And so three people have been detained so far for sharing free food in Fort Lauderdale. They are facing fines of $500 and 60 days in jail for each case of them sharing food. And so this is getting to be pretty dramatic, that this kind of thing is happening. So 60 days in jail...this one man, who's 90 years old, he's been providing food in the streets of Fort Lauderdale for over 20 years.

And Food Not Bombs itself just got arrested yesterday. They were waiting in a lobby to have a meeting with one of the city officials involved in promoting this legislation...and just as soon as they had sat down to wait for this meeting, Fort Lauderdale police arrived and arrested a number of them and took them away. So we're waiting to see if they can get out of jail now. Maybe by this broadcast they will have been released. But that's the kind of thing that we're facing there.

And then most recently, I went to speak in Indianapolis, to the Food Not Bombs chapter there. When I arrived they were busy scanning in documents from Environmental Health, claiming that they needed to get permits and go through this huge regulatory process. And it seems pretty clear...

DB: This process to give be allowed to give out free food to hungry people.

KM: Correct, yes. That's exactly what they are doing. And know this is a gift, these are people that are on their own time, going out and sharing free food, and it's also a first amendment right because when Food Not Bombs started in 1980, it was estimated roughly 100,000 homeless Americans, then after the election of Reagan and eight years of his rule, the census for homeless people went up to 750,000. And today it's estimated there's at least 3,000,000 homeless Americans, and almost half of America is living at or below the poverty level.

So, see conditions with Republicans in power in 1980 got dramatically worse. We can only imagine what will happen in the next two years with already failing economies throughout the world, and what is going on with wider wars against the Islamic state, and across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

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Dennis J Bernstein is the host and executive producer of Flashpoints, a daily news magazine broadcast on Pacifica Radio. He is an award-winning investigative reporter, essayist and poet. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and (more...)

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