A short line of young adults forms in front of a table covered with platters of cake, fruit salad, soup and bread. A few folks sit on the steps near the UNM Bookstore, noshing on their midday snacks while a man shouts, “Come have some free food.”
This Wednesday afternoon gathering looks more like a picnic than a crime scene. Yet the state Environment Department says events like these aren’t completely kosher. Peace advocacy organization Food Not Bombs shares food every Wednesday and Friday. Without a permit to dispense food to the masses, the department says Food Not Bombs is violating state regulations.
The Environmental Health Division documented seven instances in which Food Not Bombs served food without a permit. That carries a maximum penalty of about $3,500 (or $500 per citation). No punishment can be leveled against the group until there’s a hearing in front of a judge. The division has yet to request one.
“We’re going to continue serving food no matter what happens.”
Food Not Bombs member Mike Butler
Carlos Romero, director of the Health Division, says a permit requires food handlers to disclose where the food comes from and how it’s prepared. “We need to make sure their health practices are good enough to provide protection for the people they’re serving,” Romero says.
Food Not Bombs member Benjamin Abbot says the organization has been serving in front of the bookstore for years without any trouble from the state. Environment Department spokesperson Marissa Stone says department officials were driving by UNM in early February when they noticed the Food Not Bombs table. They stopped to ask if the organization had a permit and have continued to check on the group ever since.
Food Not Bombs is a national grassroots organization that’s been around since the ’80s. "We just want to give food to people who could use it," Abbot says. "Food is a right, and it's something everyone should have access to."
Abbot says the food is donated by grocery stores and produce stands in Albuquerque. Produce is washed, bad spots are removed and rotten items are thrown out. Abbot says the soup is always brought to a boil to kill germs, and the servers wear gloves. He declined to say where the food is prepared but added that all pots, pans and cutting boards are cleaned before use. Abbot also notes that everyone in Food Not Bombs eats the food that’s served.
“We need to make sure their health practices are good enough to provide protection for the people they’re serving.”
Carlos Romero, director of the Health Division
Food Not Bombs member Mike Butler says his organization doesn’t plan to apply for a permit or stop providing sustenance to those in need. “We’re going to continue serving food no matter what happens,” he says.
Spokesperson Stone says the Environment Department's goal isn’t to stop Food Not Bombs from helping homeless people or anyone else seeking a free meal. “What Food Not Bombs is doing is magnanimous in principle, but on the other hand, it could be harmful for the homeless people receiving the food,” Stone says. “We want to make sure that the people receiving the food have the same level of protection from food-borne illness as everyone else.”
But you don’t have to get a permit to hold a barbecue, right? The Health Division’s Romero says there’s a difference between a large-scale barbecue in a park and what Food Not Bombs is doing. A barbecue is not covered by the same regulations as an event where food is given to the general public, Romero explains.
Butler, however, says giving out free food falls under the group’s First Amendment rights. He also says the Environmental Department has bigger fish to fry. “We’re not a problem,” Butler says. “They should be regulating waste in the area or actually protecting the environment and protecting people’s health by regulating other things.”
Romero says he hopes Food Not Bombs will apply for a permit so no further action is required. “I don’t want to stop them,” Romero says. “I want them to continue giving food but to follow the process we have in place.”