Speaker: Keith McHenry

Abundance and Cooperation Toward Peace and Justice

In 1980, Keith McHenry was a college student trying to raise money for a friend who had been arrested at an anti-nuclear protest. To help pay for the lawyers, Keith was planning a bake sale; in a fateful moment, he saw a poster that read:

It will be a great day when the schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to have a bake sale to buy a bomber.

Keith had been studying about misplaced priorities in society and government while in Boston College at the time, and the poster gave Keith and his friends a fun idea: “to dress up in military uniforms at the bake sales, and pretend we were from the Air Force and we were trying to buy a bomber.” The gimmick would be a great way to start a conversation with passersby who might not ordinarily be reached through a protest or a sit-in.

As Keith (who hails in part from a military family) and his friends studied injustice and interacted with their community, their central idea came into focus: what the world needed was food, not bombs. It was from this seed that the volunteer organization Food Not Bombs sprouted, and has now blossomed into more than 1,000 chapters worldwide.  Since that day he saw the bake sale poster in 1980, Keith has recovered, cooked and shared vegan food with the hungry for over 35 years.

No longer centered on bake sales, Food Not Bombs volunteers salvage surplus food that would otherwise go to waste, prepare it, and serve it for free in parks, on street corners, and at protests. The food is vegan and nutritious. Volunteers distribute fliers and engage passersby in conversations about the connections between industrial agriculture, military spending, and poverty. 

Keith explains, “We are trying to model a post-capitalist society by showing first that there is abundance—because there is an abundance of food, no one should go hungry. At the same time, we work cooperatively by using the consensus process. We are a leaderless movement where everyone’s opinion is respected equally and we try to draw out the best ideas and feelings of each of the people in our collectives.”

Keith helped found the second chapter of Food Not Bombs in San Francisco, where he was one of several volunteers arrested by the police in 1988. In the following years, Keith was arrested over 100 times for serving free food in city parks (in violation of various local ordinances governing mass feedings) and spent over 500 nights in jail. Once when he was arrested in Orlando in 2011, he said, “We don’t fault the city of Orlando for being in this dilemma, because it really is a national problem. There needs to be a national solution.”  On another occasion, officers ripped off most of Keith's clothes, lifted him by his arms and legs until his ligaments and tendons ripped, kicked and punched him, and stuffed him into a stress position cage suspended from the ceiling. After three days in the cage, he was freed in his underwear at about 3:00 AM and walked to Saint Mary's Hospital for help. This was to be the first of three times that Keith was held in that cage, unclothed and in a stress position for multiple days, by the San Francisco police.

In 1995, when Keith faced life in prison because of California’s “three strikes” law, Amnesty International adopted his case and recognized Food Not Bombs volunteers as prisoners of conscience. As news spread about the arrests, new chapters of Food Not Bombs arose in major cities across the country and around the world, including Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Latin America. 

Food Not Bombs is often the first and most generous provider of food and supplies to the survivors of disasters, such as the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and the September 11 attacks in New York. Food Not Bombs also provides meals for protesters, such as a 100-day occupation in Kiev, Ukraine during the Orange Revolution, and a two-month Peace Camp on the West Bank in Palestine. Volunteers also served meals at the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle and at Occupy Wall Street protests. In each instance, local Food Not Bombs volunteers organized themselves without central planning.

Keith envisions this model growing even more, and possibly emerging as an alternate mode of governance: “Maybe there would be a spokes council meeting where two or three people from Food Not Bombs, two or three people from Homes Not Jails, two or three people from the Food Not Lawns gardening collective would all come together to make decisions in a larger community. And so the whole idea is just a small infrastructure of a cooperative, noncompetitive, sustainable way of organizing community, as opposed to the capitalist, exploitive system we currently have.”

In 1995, Keith co-founded Indymedia, a global open publishing network of journalist collectives reporting on political and social issues. Keith was also a pioneer in the Low Powered FM radio movement and a co-founder of San Francisco Liberation Radio. He is a co-founder of the October 22nd No Police Brutality Day protests and he helped start the Homes Not Jails squatters' movement in the United States.

In 2012, Keith founded the Food Not Bombs Free Skool, which teaches a summer course covering social issues, community organizing, and sustainable agriculture. He has co-authored Food Not Bombs: How to feed the hungry and build community and wrote and illustrated Hungry for Peace: How you can help end poverty and war with Food Not Bombs.

Most recently, Keith published The Anarchist Cookbook, which includes "recipes" for social change as well as for tasty group vegan meals. Asked why he supports veganism, Keith recounts, “I had to kill seven roosters when I was 15 or 16 ... And that was such an obviously violent act—sticking the knife in the head of these roosters, and all the other hens and roosters on the farm were flipping out when I did that. The goats were upset. Everybody was screaming—it was like a Hitchcock movie or something. And that’s when I became …I started feeling from that age that the violence against animals was based on the same the kind of excuse that the state and corporations use for violence in war.”

Keith was the recipient the 1999 Local Hero Award by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, was named Resister of the Year in 1995, was given the Advocate of the Year Award in 2006 by the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness, and was presented with Noam Chomsky Award in 2012 by the Justice Studies Association.

Keith lives with his partner and fellow Food Not Bombs activist, Abbi Samuels, in Santa Cruz, California and at their farm in Taos, New Mexico. He enjoys tending to their gardens, sharing meals with the hungry, maintaining one of the movement's websites and helping coordinate logistics for Food Not Bombs globally. He is an experienced public speaker giving presentations at colleges and conferences all over the world. Keith also draws, paints, and writes about social justice issues.

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