This Sunday, at the corner of Liberty Street and Main Street, the Middletown chapter of Food Not Bombs set up a few tables with prepared vegetarian food and vegetables, as they do every week at 12:45, despite recent intervention by the Middletown Health Department. Due to intermittent drizzle, the Food Not Bombs members protected the food under a tree as they shared vegetables and vegetarian food donated by local businesses and the Wesleyan fruit and veggie co-op.
Standing around tables covered with tomatoes, corn, peppers, bread and prepared vegetarian cuisine, Middletown residents and Wesleyan students ate plates full of vegetables, rice and salad, remarking on the appetizing food. Manfred Rehm, the Middletown Health Department Sanitarian stood nearby, observing the food being shared, until at 1:00 p.m. when the Middletown Police arrived.
“They confiscated all our containers of food and issued us a ‘Food Destruction’ certificate which states that food we were responsible for was deemed adulterated,” said Abe Bobman ’11.
After participants retrieved whatever food they could, the health department took away pots of prepared food. They told Food Not Bombs they could pick up the pots on Monday morning. According to Bobman, who was issued a misdemeanor summons for violating health department orders and will appear in court later this month, no one experienced any side effects as a result of the food served.
Though they have shared food every Sunday for the past 10 years with no legal intervention, Food Not Bombs was issued a cease and desist order by the City of Middletown Health Department on March 5. According to a Food Not Bombs handout, the Health Department stated that the Middletown chapter of Food Not Bombs “has been observed dispensing food and beverages to the public on multiple occasions in violation with the Middletown Municipal Code section 166-3.”
Food Not Bombs has refused to obtain a permit because they believe a potluck is no different than a bake sale or picnic and that the government should not have the power to stop the sharing of food.
“We’re going to keep coming because we don’t think we fall under Health code specifications,” said Rachel Shopper ’10. “We’re having a community potluck. If they want to regulate us they would have to regulate all picnics and potlucks, which is not their job. It’s a discriminatory application of the health code law.”
According to Izaac Lichter-Marck ’11, Food Not Bombs set up free food last Sunday as usual and people from the community and Wesleyan students began to eat. Rehm called the police, who then attempted to prohibit Food Not Bombs from continuing to share food.
“The police asked who is in charge and multiple people shouted ‘We all are,’” Lichter-Marck said. “Then the police deliberated for half an hour and instructed ‘members’ of Food Not Bombs to clean up. The police chose two people and issued them citations.”
MPD cited Michele Markowitz ’10 and local resident Fred Carroll for providing food without a permit. Food Not Bombs has a court date on May 19 to appeal the initial cease and desist order.
“I just feel I missed my enjoyable Sunday meal, and I don’t think it’s necessary, it’s completely unnecessary, a waste of their time and mine,” Bobman said. “Of course we will continue preparing meals. We have a trial and hopefully that will settle things and allow us to continue in this humble sharing of food.”
With over 35 restaurants in the area surrounding Wesleyan, one might not expect to find the extent of food insecurity present in the Middletown area. But the Food Not Bombs potluck serves the North End—a community that lies within what some call a “food desert,” an area that does not have access to mainstream supermarkets. The only grocery store within walking distance is It’s Only Natural, which offers organic but expensive food, often out of reach for an area where the median household income is $16,228, compared to $37,644 for the rest of Middletown, according to North End Action Team executive director Izzi Greenberg.
According to a Food Not Bombs handout, people who eat at Food Not Bombs potlucks decide for themselves to eat the food prepared and the Health Department has not asked these people whether they want Food Not Bombs to be shut down.
Cocomo Rock, a local resident who used to work in the Wesleyan sociology department was eating the meal prepared by Food Not Bombs when a health department official began taking away the food, including the plate in his hand. Rock, who has been unemployed for nine months, applied for food stamps, and was supposed to receive them within seven days. It’s been six weeks. Rock has been coming to Food Not Bombs potlucks since before Christmas.
“This is one of the meals I count on,” Rock said. “I tried to put food on my plate and they’re taking it away just to throw it in the garbage. What’s the crime in letting people eat?”
According to Rock, who is currently organizing in the neighborhood through his work at 191914 Ministries, Food Not Bombs not only shares food, but also brings a sense of community to the block. He questions why police ignore the illegal activity occurring on the block at night, yet break up the efforts of Food Not Bombs during the day.
“We come out in broad daylight and the police come,” Rock said. “This is the cleanest, purest, most convivial thing that happens on this sidewalk…It’s difficult to see the justice.”
In the meantime, Food Not Bombs will continue to bring food to the corner of Main and Liberty for Wesleyan students and the Middletown community to share food and express their belief that healthy food is a right rather than a privilege.