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Food is a Right

Want to do a little good this winter? Volunteer with Food Not Bombs

If you shop at pretty much any large Buffalo grocery store, bakery, or produce stand, give yourself a quick pat on the back. The money you’ve paid for your frosted flakes and instant pizza has helped feed the hungry in Western New York for the past 12 years.

At the end of the day, food retailers always have more food than they’re able to sell. Lots of vegetables won’t sell at all, because they’re just too goofy-looking for the average consumer. Some might be bruised or a strange shape, and supply always exceeds demand. Fresh baked goods like bread and pastries can only last a day on the shelf, and juices and prepared foods have expiration dates, after which they cannot be sold.

Instead of being thrown out, the food is picked up by the Western New York Food Shuttle. The shuttle picks up unsold food from 70 stores every day and delivers it to 115 shelters, food pantries, and other places where people are hungry. The shuttle transports nearly 30,000 pounds of food every week, and is run by more than 300 volunteers.

So just by supporting those stores and not eating all their food, you’ve been feeding the hungry. Like I said, small pat on the back. The bigger pats could be yours, too, but you’re going to have to do a little more work. Here’s a place to start:

All of the produce used by Food Not Bombs, the Buffalo chapter of a national anti-hunger group, comes from the Lexington Food Co-op’s Sunday night food shuttle donation. The Co-op provides Food Not Bombs with three or four crates of fresh produce every week. Most of the produce is given away raw, but some is cooked into a few huge pots for a free lunch. Last Monday that lunch featured a hot apple and pear dish, roasted sweet potatoes and carrots, and curried vegetables with yellow rice.

Everything is cooked Monday morning at the Unitarian Church on Elmwood Avenue and West Ferry Street. Then it’s loaded up into a volunteer’s car and driven down to Lafayette Square, where it is served at a few folding tables.

Downtown is busy at lunchtime on weekdays, and delivering the food is never difficult. Amanda Amico, who, along with Megan Piret, has been volunteering at Food Not Bombs for the better part of decade, says that the group has really never had any leftovers. The group gets by on the food shuttle donations, as well as small cash donations handed over in handshakes at lunchtime.

The group has had a rotating cast of volunteers for over a decade, nicely profiled in these pages by Peter Koch in 2008. Some of the faces have changed over the years, but its mission remains the same: to feed great, healthy, vegan meals to hungry people.

The group sets up only three blocks from the tent city at Occupy Buffalo, but surprisingly, none of the protesters come over for lunch. Then again, Food Not Bombs has a built-in clientele in front of Lafayette Square. When we got out of the car a few days ago, there were already a bunch of people waiting to help get the tables and containers of food out of the trunk, and then get them out of the box and into their shopping bags.

Since there were six of us in the kitchen, a good number considering the colder weather, we had prepared three heavy containers of hot food in addition to two crates of raw fruits and vegetables. Everything was gone in 45 minutes. About half of the folks that came to the table had never seen Food Not Bombs before, and were glad to have a free hot lunch and a little fruit to take home.

It doesn’t hurt that the food is delicious. The apples and pears are deliciously sweet, and pair well with the filling starches of the potatoes. Like all hot food, it tastes even better and heartier when enjoyed outside on a cold day. Part of the group’s expertise in the kitchen may come from a popular restaurant in University Heights, where some of the volunteers have worked.

The 2008 film We Need Food Not Bombs by Ron Douglas is a great explanation of where the group is coming from. It centers around a very political group of young people in Buffalo’s punk scene, many of whom were volunteering on Monday. The movement is rooted in simple anti-war, pro-humanitarian beliefs. Why spend half of the nation’s budget on defense when more than a quarter of the city of Buffalo lives below the poverty line, and roughly 10 percent of Upstate New York families don’t get enough to eat? Knowing that hunger is a serious problem with tangible solutions, Food Not Bombs offers their food right out in the open, rather than confined to a pantry, soup kitchen, or shelter. This public interaction flies in the face of what we know about food commerce, and illuminates the group’s message: Food is a human right, and not a privilege. Also, as it turns out, when you start announcing free food on the street, a lot of people will take you up on it.

There’s plenty of food to be cooked, and Food Not Bombs would like to add a day to their food service. According to Amico, the problem is knowing how many people are going to show up to help. It would be a shame to have too much food, and not be able to cook or move it all. The group is always looking for new volunteers at their kitchen at the Elmwood Unitarian Church. Just knock on the back door.

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