Food Not Bombs clashes with the city of Santa Cruz over permits

A view of Town Clock in downtown Santa Cruz.
A view of Town Clock in downtown Santa Cruz.
(City of Santa Cruz)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, March 1. I’m Justin Ray.

An organization that provides food for individuals experiencing homelessness received a cease and desist order from the city of Santa Cruz.

The organization, called Food Not Bombs, is a collective that provides food to unhoused people across the world. They recover vegan and vegetarian food that would have otherwise gone to the trash, “in protest to war, poverty, and destruction of the environment.”

One precept of Food Not Bombs is that governments and private businesses have become morally corrupt, leading to millions of people going hungry globally. At first glance, you might think Santa Cruz is proving that point with its handling of the organization’s local chapter. But the situation is more complicated than it seems.


But first, in order to understand this story, it helps to get a better handle of the ideological underpinnings of the organization.

The Food Not Bombs ideology

Food Not Bombs first started in Cambridge, Mass., in 1980. Its site lists more than 500 chapters across the world. A map of Food Not Bombs “locations” lists more than 50 in the state.

The Santa Cruz fiasco isn’t actually the first time the group has made headlines with an incident in California. In 1988, San Francisco police arrested scores of their members on “parking code and health violations” as they tried to feed unhoused people in Golden Gate Park.

Food Not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry told The Times that its work is based on three principles: food is always “free to anyone rich or poor, drunk or sober”; they have no presidents, directors, or leader; and, finally, that the organization is not a charity but it is dedicated to nonviolent social change.

But there are other rules, such as never applying for a permit to feed the hungry. “The reality is you do not need to ask permission from the government to do something the government itself does not do, which is why we have a global policy against accepting or requesting permission to share free food on the streets,” McHenry says.

(The city of Santa Cruz provided The Times with multiple permits previously obtained by Food Not Bombs for its past events. McHenry explained that the organization has obtained permits for land and facilities, but it refuses to obtain permits that specifically apply to the handing out of food.)


The organization stands out from others in its willingness to break the law. For instance, it has another project with a catchy three-word moniker: Homes Not Jails. The initiative helps unhoused people find vacant and abandoned properties for shelter. This is commonly referred to as squatting.

When asked why the group doesn’t balk at defying the government, McHenry said: “The government has really no legitimacy or authority. They’re there to facilitate the transfer of our resources and our money to the super-rich. That’s their only job and the only thing that they do.”

What Santa Cruz has to say

During the pandemic, Food Not Bombs has been operating at a downtown landmark clock tower surrounded by three streets, known as Town Clock.

Elizabeth Smith, the communications manager for the city of Santa Cruz, told The Times that the location has presented problems. “There’s a lot of traffic. It was getting crowded in this small parcel of land. People were spilling out into the street,” Smith said. She added that the city also requires those serving food to get a permit to ensure the health and safety of the food’s recipients.

According to Smith, one reason that the city is now asking the organization to acquire permits is because it went from only serving the needy on the weekends to hosting daily operations.


The cease and desist order, which the city provided to The Times, contains “public complaints” the city claims to have received about the organization’s operations. They include: trampling of vegetation, FNB event participants smoking on site, tiles of the Town Clock chipped away, pedestrian pathways being blocked, and food and debris illegally dumped into a water fountain.

The city has not set a date for when the organization has to obtain a permit. However, Santa Cruz Deputy City Atty. Cassie Bronson said in a letter to the organization that “should this illegal conduct continue, the city reserves all of its rights under the law to take action to assure that FNB either comes into legal compliance or ceases illegal, unpermitted operations.”

“We have numerous organizations within the city of Santa Cruz that work to feed the hungry, and with none of them do we have the issues that we have with Food Not Bombs,” Smith says. “So it is not the act of feeding that is at issue here. It is the conditions that come along with it that infringe upon the quality of life of others.

“We fully support their mission. We just want the organization to do a better job of being a good neighbor,” Smith says.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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The home where a man overdosed on fentanyl is seen in Beverly Hills on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA.
The home where a Beverly Hills man overdosed on fentanyl is shown on Feb. 23.
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Gov. Gavin Newsom showed up at a Stockton man’s home and asked to take his new electric vehicle for a ride. It turns out the resident, Michael Macias, just helped the state reach a major milestone. He purchased the state’s millionth electric vehicle. “What a surprise it was to have Gov. Gavin Newsom show up in my frontyard and drive my vehicle around the neighborhood,” Macias said. “Not something you could ever imagine or dream of happening, but it did.” ABC 10


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The street contained rubble from the ground floor of the Oakland apartment building.
The street contained rubble from the ground floor of the Oakland apartment building.
(Oakland Fire Department)

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Today’s California memory is from Kevin Patterson:

Fond memories of growing up in Southern California, Pomona to be specific, in the 1960s and early ‘70s. My brother and I would ride our bicycles to the downtown Pomona Mall and literally spend the day hanging out. Stopping at Mel’s Hamburgers on the corner of Holt Boulevard and Palomares Steet to enjoy the best burgers in town, at the time, and visiting Rod Gun and Hobby store at the mall. The store had it all -- sporting goods, hobby items, models to build, etc. Rod Gun and Hobby would conduct contests and you would submit the plastic model car you built. We never won the contest, but it did not matter. We knew we had to get home when the street lights started coming on -- a different era for sure, treasured memories.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)


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