When I first arrived in Brisbane in May 2011, I carried amongst my few possessions a scrap of paper. It had been ripped out of a defunct anarchist zine and it listed radical social spaces in various Australian cities. For Brisbane, the sole entry read: Food Not Bombs. Fridays 6:30pm. Across from the lizard on Boundary St, West End.
The lizard, as it turned out, was easy enough to find. In fact by the time that first Friday came around I had already been shown the community house around the corner where the food was prepared; so I could turn up and chop veggies in the tradition of so many travelers at Food Not Bombs before and since. I would have stayed and washed dishes too, except that sitting down to eat I met some political types who invited me to a party a few suburbs away. It was the first of many, many Friday nights I would spend at Brisbane Food Not Bombs.
Food Not Bombs wasn’t unfamiliar to me before that night. I had also helped out for a while in Melbourne’s various locations. But before that, a similar open meal in Sydney’s inner west called People’s Kitchen had been a transformative experience for me. It took me a long time of living in Sydney before I ever found People’s Kitchen, but when I did I loved it. There, in an improvised kitchen of electric woks and sink connected by hose to the nearest tap; the practice of preparing and eating food became a glimpse of another world – people off the street mingled with travelers from around the world. Everyone was welcome and everything was free. I learned how to cook dishes I’d never heard of; while I met people of all kinds of amazing lives. After that it was hard to go back to cooking dinner for one in the saucepan or buying takeaway.
Food Not Bombs, for those unfamiliar, is a decentralised worldwide organisation of public meals that began in the US in the 1980’s. It certainly didn’t invent the idea of sharing food with strangers, but it came to represent a philosophy of how to do that – food healthy for humans and planet, linking the action to broader movements for social change, breaking down the barrier of benefactor and recipient that defines much charity work. People who agreed with the values took on the name. Now there are hundreds of groups all around the world.
In Brisbane, Food Not Bombs had been running on and off for around a decade by that night I first came. The earliest I’ve ever heard anyone remember it existing was for a series of radical street parties in the early 2000’s. After that it would run sporadically as a weekly meal, taken up intermittently by different groups feeling inspired. I saw an old zine once advertising it happening in Fortitude Valley, though I think it has mostly ran in West End.
The house where it was cooked, and still is, is an innocuous looking Queenslander in Thomas St, West End. Once a maternity hospital, in the 70’s it had been a radical christian commune called House Of Freedom. Since then it has functioned as a community space, available for use by all kinds of groups and organisations. It is owned in a very hands-off manner by a handful of community-minded folks. Food Not Bombs has never paid more than occasional tokenistic rent at the house, but we have a permanent cupboard storing our stuff, and every Friday afternoon take over the kitchen and adjoining room for a few hours. That kitchen in those early days was crumbling, vermin-inhabitated and ill-equipped, with signs on the wall warning about asbestos. A few years on the house got a government grant for a new kitchen; and these days it is a much fancier, cleaner and roomier space we use. Occasionally an old-timer will turn up and be amazed at the new kitchen, though at this point I’m so used to it I can hardly remember what the old one looked like.
The spot on Boundary St where we serve the food each week is a park by name, though it possibly stretches the definition a bit. It’s essentially a vacant block that has been paved at the front with a few scattered trees. When I first came it was mostly dirt, though like our kitchen it was given a council facelift at one point which laid turf (some of which is still there), removed the picnic table and added a fresh brightly coloured mural on one wall. It houses a filthy set of public toilets and a small kiosk which has for as long as anyone remembers advertised 98.9 Murri Country radio. The park is occasionally referred to by the station’s call sign – AAA Park. I’ve also seen it referred to as Little Musgrave Park, or most commonly People’s Park. All of this explains why “across from the lizard” is as good a description as any.
As far as parks go, this one is not especially beautiful. It is frequently used for drinking or sleeping in by local street folk, and is often attended by police. For this reason it’s not very well loved by the local business community. I’ve been told that once before my time Food Not Bombs was threatened that health inspectors would be called by a nearby trader, though in all my time there the only real issue we’ve had with businesses was once the owner of the bar next door complained to me that the streeties we were feeding were hanging around outside his front entry. When the council opened up a newer, much nicer park around the corner; it was suggested we move the meal there. But over the years I’ve become very attached to this spot of concrete and dirt plonked in the middle of the main street and I never really considered moving.
Cafes and bars come and go in West End with some frequency, and with each of our neighbours that changes I reflect with a smile that we obviously have the most sustainable business model. In recent years there have been a few elaborate outdoor dining setups which present a slight complication for us given our method of transporting food the two blocks from kitchen to park is to load it all on a flat trestle table and carry it by hand.
The responses we get to this are great. It certainly gains a bit of attention, which is a service we like to offer as a break to the mundanity of a Friday night at restaurants or shops. Often Trevor, one of our regular diners (though he needs a bit of encouragement at dinner to venture beyond his favourite dish of mashed potatoes) will march comically in front; directing traffic when we cross the road and holding aloft our plywood sign – which he “accidentally” crashes into as many hanging shop signs as he can. I will admit the setup looks a bit like a funeral procession, though it is rarely sombre. My favourite description came from a local poet named Fern, who told me she thought carrying the table was “the most romantic part of Food Not Bombs”. To be honest though, her enthusiasm has been well and truly outnumbered by the number of people who complain about carrying it or try to suggest other elaborate ways of transporting the food. Remarkably, there have been very few mishaps involving dropping the table or food – I can never remember any that led to a loss of a lot of food. There is frequent discussion about the best technique to carry it, including my (showing my rarely seen “safety regulation” side) scolding of people for not bending their knees when picking it up or putting it down. The whole thing is made possible by the fact we possess an amazing trestle table which is very large, very stable, but very light. We have used this table ever since my first night there. Where it came from I have no idea. But I love that procession down the street.
Even some nights in pouring rain we trek down there, either driving the food down or covering the table in a tarp for the walk. There’s only the tiniest amount of shelter in the park, and sometimes even I have needed convincing that it’s worthwhile on these nights. But I think any meal served on nights like that is worth at least two eaten on a balmy Queensland evening.
The last part I should describe I guess is the food. Sometimes we get donations from supportive businesses or organisations, but overwhelming the food we have served up over those last 8 years has been rescued from supermarket dumpsters. The quantity of food thrown out is immense, the quality enough to make you shake your head at disbelief at the insanity of our society. When you’re regularly diving through bins anyway, it’s nice to have something like a weekly community meal just so you can have something to do with all that food.
The meals cooked are traditionally vegan (for ethical and environmental reasons as well as food safety). The classic Food Not Bombs dish is what I affectionately call “vegan slop” – random ingredients thrown in a pot together with a few spices. A regular buffet would look something like: mashed/roasted potatoes, lentils, veggie stir fries or curries, fruit salad, apple crumble. Often there are only slight variations on this theme, though I have tried to vary it a bit. Sometimes we’re blessed with a person in the kitchen who is especially creative, either because they’re an experienced chef or they just have a natural flair for experimental dishes. Either way I’ve always encouraged it, because what is Food Not Bombs if not a different way if looking at food? It’s rare that I’ve ever refused to serve up a dish (I do draw the line at undercooked rice), but sometimes if there is a lot of chilli I have to label it with a warning!
We have had some support from businesses. One constant part of the Friday afternoon routine has been going to Solbread cafe and picking up their unsold fancy sourdough. Until it closed, another part was walking across the road from the park to The Forest vegan cafe and filling up a tub with hot water for washing up. This arrangement pre-dated both my time in Brisbane and the the owners of the cafe; but each new staff member that did the Friday shift would just shrug and let me in. It was only one week when the boss turned up to find me barefoot in their kitchen filling the tub that the routine changed and they would leave us out the front while they filled it. Friday nights there were hardly buzzing, in the end it closed down and we haven’t succeeded in getting another place to give us hot water. Occasional support came in other forms. I must have picked hundreds of sprigs of rosemary from the house across the road from our kitchen. One day the resident of the house arrived home as I was doing it, she smiled and told me she was glad.
All that is just setting the scene really. These are all things I love about Food Not Bombs, but they are only the beginning of my experience there. Over seven and a half years, what this Friday night ritual offered my life has gone way beyond food. I want to tell this story with its ups and downs; and why it has meant so much to me.
In those early days of my time in Brisbane, the Food Not Bombs collective was thriving. There were a number of people – good cooks, with enough people to rotate weeks off, a happy mixture of West End hippies and anarchist punks. There was a great energy on Friday nights.
I was in and out of Brisbane for a while, so I can’t really recall the details. But I do remember a special collective meeting. Ostensibly about dealing with a problematic person who had been coming, it was evident that those in the room had lost the spark. Before long that whole collective had faded out and the responsibility of Food Not Bombs had fallen to me and a couple of friends.
By December of that year, I was leaving too. I had my farewell party on the street at Food Not Bombs. My friend Bobby kept it alive for a little while, and I briefly reinvigorated it during a two week visit a few months later. Other than that brief visit I was away for six months. But as various circumstances led me to decide I was returning north, a couple of women named Maddy and Jess contacted the Brisbane Food Not Bombs facebook group (the group, which pre-dates my time, is the only public point of contact. It’s useful but I don’t like the way it has over a thousand members who never come. There are enough online groups in the world, Food Not Bombs is an IRL event). They had each come back from overseas where they had been to Food Not Bombs and wanted to know if it was happening in Brisbane. We started it up again.
That first night back is memorable to me because there was an exciting new energy in the air, and because Maddy made kale chips – a dish which, given I am a long way from the culinary cutting edge, I had never heard of before. For a while we tried Wednesdays, but before long we reverted to Friday nights, where it has remained ever since.
It was a thrill having a group of people all working together for the love of this idea. But one of the things that should be said about Food Not Bombs over the next few years was that I didn’t always have a lot of company. The initial support of Maddy and Jess didn’t fit with work schedules, and while an amazing number of people came through and helped at different times, they rarely committed to making it happen – a burden that rested solely on me. When I went away, as I have been known to do, Food Not Bombs would generally just not happen as there was no one else I could rely upon to do it.
A few times I remember cooking the whole thing on my own (after dumpstering the food too) and having to phone friends who lived nearby to get their help carrying the table down. Once I remember someone saying with a touch of derision that it wasn’t really a functional collective and I was brought to tears. Must have been having a bad day. I still loved it though, and mostly it kept going because even in a big city I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing on a Friday night. In putting this article together I flicked through the journal I kept through 2012, and though it sometimes mentions not many people being around, generally all it says for each Friday is “FNB was as always great” – as if no other explanation was needed.
There was help from others though. Often travellers would come by, maybe having experienced it in other cities or just looking for something to do and some people to connect with. A vast and random set of characters came through – some just once or twice, some more regularly. Some of them I’ll describe later in more depth. Hannaka, who in those very early days used to turn up and sing the whole way through the cooking process, kept it alive at one point by doing the dumpster diving and dropping off the food on a Friday morning, just as those late night dumpster runs were starting to get too much for me.
Mostly dumpster diving is a fun activity, certainly the randomness of it makes it more exciting than the actual supermarket shelves. There have been some great nights sharing the experience with others, including plenty of times taking people for their first time. Over the years the dumpster diving for Food Not Bombs has gotten a bit simpler as I’ve lived closer to fruitful dumpsters and even had housemates with cars we could load up. But for a long time the food was gathered on often solo bike trips from West End to whichever bin at the time was the most fruitful – always a few kilometres away. It’s the simple pleasures that keep you going, and I would derive some joy from seeing how much I could load up on my bike. There’s nothing like wobbling home in the middle of the night with fruit and veg loaded in a crate on the back of the bike, a backpack, a bag tied on each handlebar and often a box balanced on top of the handlebars. As well as all the people it fed, I think of it as providing entertainment for any fellow late night travellers I would pass by.
Some nights though could be tough. If a bin was empty, I would just ride to the next closest one and try again. I remember one night actually finding a bin full of food at Toowong only to have a carload of cops stop, threaten to arrest me, and force me to put it all back. Another time after a long Thursday night I remember getting back to my kitchen with the food just as my housemate was getting up to go to work at 4am. We sat down and had a cuppa together before she headed out and I went to bed.
I wasn’t totally alone though in doing Food Not Bombs, and it was richly rewarding meeting the different people who would come and help. Occasionally I was aided by the fact that we shared the Thomas St building with a disability support organisation that had people coming and going. One of those people was Sandon. Sandon went to the high school down the road but his mum worked at Thomas St. On Fridays he would come and wait for her to finish work. One week I asked him if he’d like to help in the kitchen. He chopped a few veggies, and the next week did the same. Before long his mum was heading home without him on a Friday while he was coming down the street to eat with us. Sandon was 14, but small even for his age and extremely shy. He grew more and more confident coming back to Food Not Bombs each week, especially coming out of his shell when the conversation turned to his great love of films. When he let slip to me one day that he had been rehearsing for his school production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”, we surprised him by bringing a Food Not Bombs contingent to the performance. He still comes sometimes too, though he’s now an adult with a more full social schedule.
He wasn’t the only young one to come either – over the years we’ve had quite a few. Lily was in primary school but came with her mum a few times, sculpting the mashed potato into artistic shapes. Jesse came with his mum for a while too, coming up with dishes and asking me questions about girls and politics. Years later he turned up one Friday alone with his girlfriend to show her Food Not Bombs. He still wanted to talk politics.
Others were around the house because of the different programs ran there; and the fact I was there every week, mostly in need of help, gave me the opportunity to invite all kinds of people to join me. John was a man in his 40’s who lived in a local hostel. He rarely spoke but constantly smiled and would often be much appreciated company as I cooked, helpfully chopping vegetables. He died of cancer a few years later. The Greek Orthodox priest doing the funeral didn’t have a lot to say about about a man with a disability who barely spoke. I wished I could get up and share what a blessing he had been to me on those Friday afternoons.
A long lasting contributor to Food Not Bombs was Joan. She lived in a local hostel but didn’t like to go home, preferring to wander the streets of West End. She called Food Not Bombs “Ya The Bomb” and would turn up nearly every week for a long time. She would diligently chop fruit and vegetables, though her preference for piling everything in the one pot meant I often had to do a bit of separating before cooking. Joan also still makes occasional appearances.
The list of people I love and wonderful characters who have come through Food Not Bombs is too long to do justice to in this article, or even for me to remember. Literally nearly every week for most of a decade I would speak to someone there I’d never met before. But this is of course one of the great joys of doing it, so I will do my best to list some of them.
Paul first came way back in 2011. He is a bit of a loner, and also completely deaf, which made it hard at first to communicate with him. Back then Rhyll was part of the collective and would speak to him by finger spelling. When he came back in 2012,with Rhyll no longer coming, I memorised the AUSLAN alphabet to converse with him. I wasn’t the last person who would learn to sign from Paul on Friday nights. Over the years one after another person has learned how to have fingerspelled conversations with Paul, an extraordinary feat of teaching from someone who says he doesn’t like to go to deaf social events because they talk too much.
Delilah turned up late one night as we were about to pack up. She was excited by our presence. “Feed the people, free the land!” she exclaimed. She came regularly after that, and still does sometimes. She has a great heart for people, is an amazing singer and has other talents too. “I can see angels and demons,” she told me on that first night. “I see Tony Abbott – he’s a demon! That’s why he’s trying to kill the pensioners!” It was so nice to hear someone finally talking some sense when it came to politics.
There is a taxi rank out the front of People’s Park. We rarely have much to do with the drivers, though one notable exception was Geoff. Geoff would park his cab and come over for a plate of food, occasionally annoying other cabbies who got stuck behind his empty car. A remarkable guy, he was one of the first people I ever heard express a kind of “autism pride”. He would ask for recipes, and one day dropped off his labour of love – a weighty photocopied zine explaining in some detail his spiritual beliefs.
Greg is a lovely Fijian guy who would come always near the end when we were about to pack up. He lived on the streets and was a regular at a few soup kitchens. His dream, which he often talked about, was to one day organise a big hāngi in West End and feed a lot of people in his traditional style. For literally years he would talk about this, asking if we would provide the veggies. I was very happy to be a part of it when it finally happened in Musgrave Park; bizarrely enough mostly feeding a Greens Party christmas event.
One week a man in his 50’s wearing King Gee overalls came to help cook. His daughter had been to Food Not Bombs in Europe and told him he might like it. Ollie told me later that he had made sure to dress for all the expected workplace safety requirements, only to walk in and see me barefoot, bending over the stove with dreadlocks nearly dipping in the soup (I think he’s exaggerating!). The next week he came back with cups, saucers and a bottomless teapot – which he has brought ever since. In all the years he’s been coming, I think Ollie has hardly cooked a dish. But his joyful and encouraging presence has been such a blessing.
Our presence on the street opens up new possibilities in a street that is mostly full of the “hospitality industry” rather than gestures of hospitality. I love carrying that food past all those bars and restaurants with our sign saying “everything is free”. Years ago now, there was a Turkish woman who worked in one of those restaurants. Sadly as much as I try, I can’t remember her name. She spoke little English, but each week she would take a few minutes off work to bring us delicious home cooked food. We would return her dish on our way home. Besides the language barrier, she worked every Friday night so we hardly got to know her, though she did invite us to her farewell dinner before she went back to Turkey.
Another Turkish woman who I got to know much more but also met at Food Not Bombs was Yeliz. She was an 18 year old social work student when she first came, invited by a friend I had met. She had never done anything like it before, but had an amazing enthusiasm for the whole thing and for talking to strangers. At the end of the night, she raved about how great it was. I left town after that, but the next time I saw her she came to court supporting myself and a few others who’d been arrested doing an anti-war protest. Over the years that followed she was around for plenty of Food Not Bombs, plenty of protests too – even getting arrested herself. We lived together in crazy open hospitality houses. These days she is travelling around the world teaching shiatsu massage, but I saw her just before she left. “You introduced me to all this” she told me.
Plenty of others became long term friends after meeting at Food Not Bombs. More have just been cameos in my life. Josh stopped in one night. He was a bit crazy if seemingly harmless; but had an involuntary treatment order for anti-psychotics which he was refusing to comply with. He was so disgusted by the idea of us serving dumpstered food that he accosted random passers by to warn them the food they weren’t even intending to eat had come from the bin. We disagreed on other things too, mostly political. But he liked the company enough that he came back every week for a while, never once succumbing to the temptation of the bin food. Then one week he didn’t come. I contacted everyone I thought might know of his whereabouts, but no one knew. I have never seen him again.
Sadly, that’s the case for so many people who come through Food Not Bombs. They live transient lives – on the streets of West End one night, who knows where the next. We’ve had people just out of prison, going to rehab, searching for housing. One guy who came for a while was about 40. He’d spent most of his adult life in prison after killing someone in a drug-fuelled moment to regret. Out of jail now and on the methadone program; he would eat, chat and help wash up. I don’t know where he is now, but I hope he’s doing ok.
All kinds of memories come up when I start thinking about it. Judy is a Murri woman who lives on the street and has a gorgeous toothless smile and lovely nature. Over the years I’ve watched her cattle dog and faithful companion Sasha grow from a puppy. Gabriel was an old Ethiopian guy with not a single tooth. He would come regularly, asking how soft each dish was before he put it on his plate. Russell was from Zimbabwe, and would be sitting on the corner busking with his mbira (thumb piano) singing Shona songs. He would take a break to come eat with us. When I found out he had no recordings of his music I brought him into the radio studio to do some tracks. Our current city councillor Jonathan Sri once told me he included volunteering at Food Not Bombs in his CV (that was before his job application process involved public campaigning). He still comes down for a feed and chat pretty regularly too. Brendon is blind but is Brisbane’s fiercest disability advocate, a force to be feared by local politicians. He comes mostly to talk about his latest campaigns, though he can when needed help chop veggies. Alison and Jess, two young women with some challenges in life but plenty of gifts, lift the atmosphere in the kitchen from convivial to raucous.
Convivial, mind you, is not always the atmosphere at Food Not Bombs. The nature of it, taking place in a public space where people with various issues are often consuming a lot of alcohol, means it is unpredictable and not always a pleasant or safe place to be.
Dealing with threatening or obnoxious people is just a normal part of the routine. I’ve had to witness and often intervene in so many physical fights it seems pointless recalling any one particular incident. The two that do stick in my mind are the times our wooden sign was used as a weapon. The guy who tried to smack someone over the head with it as if it was a chair on WWF was never going to do much damage. I was more worried the time one guy held it flat and threw it straight at his opponent’s forehead. Fortunately it caught a bit of an updraft and sailed overhead.
Some memories, though not much fun at the time, are comical to look back on. We had a group of streeties living in the park for a while who weren’t very pleasant (though I hope giving them a decent meal helped a bit on that front). They took a particular dislike to one woman one night after asking her for a cigarette turned into an argument. Sensing what was coming, I packed up the table, grabbed our friend and headed off. We left to howls of abuse, and were actually showered in sticky passion pop from a bottle one guy was holding. Power-walking with a table full of pots and pans, trailed by loud abuse and smelling strongly of sugary alcohol; that night we didn’t provide the kind of spectacle to the patrons of Boundary St I aspire to.
Some nights though there will never be a funny side to. The worst ever night of Food Not Bombs was when a teenage volunteer was sexually assaulted in the back of the park. Much to my regret, I was trying to help up a drunk who had fallen over at our table and never saw the incident. It was in fact a worker at the bar next door who saw it and ran out to intervene. I will never forget facing that young person’s guardian that night, or going down to the police station to file a report.
The perpetrator in that case was a local disabled man who came regularly. I told him he could never come back. Generally though, it’s not a space that excludes people. I called a meeting of the collective when one volunteer tried to rape a regular when she was passed out at his house. I was the only man at that meeting and was surprised to hear all the women say they cared about safety but didn’t want to exclude him. As it turned out, when I confronted him about it he stopped coming anyway.
These occurrences though are not the norm. Food Not Bombs is normally a wonderful atmosphere that transforms the street from a strip of concrete into a place of welcome and fun. There are few spaces where people as diverse as this get together and talk over a meal.
One thing I planned to do for ages but never got around to (it was enough work doing the food) was Songs Not Bombs – combining two of my great loves. In the end it happened through the initiative of Tom Smith, a local musician and social worker who also used People’s Park for a local songwriting group. After that it became a semi-regular event; to various results. One gig, organised by feminist punk band Hannahkisst, turned into a shambles when a drunken streetie kept commandeering the microphone to rant at his captive audience. A happier memory was when Tasmanian folk punk legend Chris Burrows toured north and the park was completely packed.
A couple of times I found romance with people who randomly turned up at Food Not Bombs. Plenty of other times date night was spent over the pots, sink and on the street. Many friendships were forged there too, helped by the shared vision of the world that those Fridays were trying to live out. Actually right now, nearly 5000km away from Brisbane, I am crashing in the shed of a friend I first met there in People’s Park; when she turned up a scruffy traveler with a mongrel pup.
Food Not Bombs being a pretty unusual and interesting place, every now and then someone approaches asking to interview us. I always make time for uni students doing assignments; but the mass media are another story. Media stories about dumpster diving are usually painful and embarrassing – either wacky novelty stories or mock serious things that ruminate on the cost of living but totally miss the point. As such, we have actually refused a few interview requests, initially including one from an ABC reporter named Kym. Kym was persistent though, and I felt rude so invited her along. The glowing article and radio story she made of a night at Food Not Bombs was what you might call a puff piece, but the truth is that is just an honest account of what happened that night. I really do believe it’s a beautiful and utopian thing, and I was quite proud to read someone else write about it that way. It was also useful because a few from the collective had been involved in a protest action a few weeks earlier that had been slammed the media. “When I feed the poor they call me a saint, when I ask why they are poor they call me a communist” said Dom Helder Camara many years ago. Both parts of the one process of trying to change the world, but it was nice to get a bit of appreciation anyway.
The anarchist nature of Food Not Bombs was important to me. There are plenty of soup kitchens, this one should represent not just free food but a whole different way of seeing the world. As such we never sought a council permit or any kind of insurance; and we always maintained a serving with no discernible difference between those who cooked the food and those who come to eat. I’ve been part of other Food Not Bombs that felt like a service, but one of the things I’ve always loved about Brisbane’s is that it feels more like a big open picnic.
Over much of the time we’ve done Food Not Bombs I’ve also been a part of hospitality houses that welcomed people in need of a place to stay. The two have worked well together, and many many people have turned up at Food Not Bombs homeless and ended up staying at our house – from pregnant mums to street kids and travelers from all over. These haven’t always worked out perfectly in the end, but it can make a big difference in a person’s life at that time.
They weren’t homeless, but when Vicente and Catalina first came to Food Not Bombs they were newly arrived from Chile and spoke pretty much zero english – communicating only in smiles. Fortunately you can communicate a lot with smiles, and so we got on great and they kept coming back. We took them for their first ever dumpster dive, and they ended up living with us. When visa purposes dictated they get married, the party afterwards happened in our loungerooom (after a morning spent being prosecuted in court no less).
At first those houses and Food Not Bombs were only really linked by my presence at them both. But in late 2015, I went interstate for a while and my housemates, led by my long time comrade Bek, said they would keep it going. It was the first time in four years Food Not Bombs managed to survive me leaving town, and was possibly the nicest gift anyone has ever given to me. From that time on it has managed to keep a continuous presence and has become essentially one of the many projects of the Dorothy Day House.
Over the last couple of years my housemates Michael and Franz have become integral parts of it happening each week. Franz is the king of veggie stir fries and after finishing a dish will often retire to the next room to sing gentle folk songs on his guitar. Michael is a less placid presence in the kitchen, and there have been a few disputes between me and him – sometimes about food prep but more likely about whether or not we need to rush. Just a slight complication that comes from a more collective format after years as a nominal dictatorship. But attendance has remained pretty healthy, and those old days of cooking on my own and then calling around for help to carry the food seem like very distant memories.
It continues to be a wonderful place; even as I’ve now left Brisbane indefinitely (of course for the last couple of months I have been helping with Food Not Bombs in Perth). Reflecting on my time in that city, Food Not Bombs is notable as a constant presence in my life, a long lasting source of joy and inspiration, and an achievement I can be proud of. Of course the things I’ve recounted in this article are just random memories. Inevitably I’m forgetting things and can’t mention everything.
In the years I spent doing Food Not Bombs, we fed thousands of bellies; provided a welcoming place to all their owners too. Hundreds of kilos of food that would otherwise have been wasted was put to use. Just our presence on the street must have opened up some tiny crack of new possibility in the mind of those walking by; let alone the many who came, cooked, cleaned, chatted and chewed.
Mostly though, the thing I love about that time is that for once a week I got to be completely honest with the world about how I felt things should be. All our lives we are either subtly or overtly told a tale of private ownership, status hierarchies, “laws” of economics, codes of propriety. Every Friday night we would push back – plonk down our table and serve up a world not as we’re told it is, but as we believe it could be.