Food on Trial: Food Not Bombs Appeals City Ordinance
On Monday, Sept. 21, Abe Bobman ’11 will appear in front of a hearing officer from the State Department of Public Health in an ongoing battle over the status of Middletown’s chapter of Food Not Bombs. The group, which consists primarily of Wesleyan students, was issued a cease and desist order by the Middletown Health Department last March for dispensing food without a permit to members of the community. According to the Middletown Health Department, Food Not Bombs is in violation of the Municipal Code; the group is now in the process of appealing the decision.
“Our argument is that the state and city health codes do not apply to Middletown Food Not Bombs,” said Attorney Elizabeth Conklin in an interview with The Argus. “Food Not Bombs is not a restaurant, it’s not a kitchen, it’s simply a group of people who share food as part of a broader political message.”
Members of the group avoid referring to their actions as “serving” food, instead preferring the word “sharing.”
The hearing was divided into two parts. The City made its case at the first session in August, and now Food Not Bombs will present its side. City officials declined to comment on the grounds that they are not permitted to discuss ongoing litigation.
At the first hearing, which was originally scheduled to take place in the smallest conference room in the State Health Department building and had to be relocated due to the larger-than-expected showing, the City’s two witnesses, Salvatore Nesci and Fred Rehm, were questioned and cross-examined.
“It does seem like the hearing officer has greater sympathy with the [Middletown] Health Department because she herself is a member of the State Health Department,” said Bobman, who was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for his involvement with the group. “She seems sort of skeptical about Food Not Bombs.”
Conklin acknowledges that succeeding at the appeal hearing will be a challenge.
“As a general matter, it’s an uphill battle to prevail at these administrative hearings,” she said. “We believe Food Not bombs should prevail and we’re doing everything we can to get things back the way they were.”
If the hearing officer rules in favor of Food Not Bombs, the cease and desist order will be nullified and the group will be able to continue as is has for the past decade. If she rules in favor of the City, Food Not Bombs may pursue an injunction against the city.
“The best case scenario would be that a precedent would be established in Conn. and possibly nationwide that would give other Food Not Bombs chapters the opportunity to be immune from law enforcement,” Bobman said.
Despite the cease and desist order, Food Not Bombs has found a way to continue cooking and dispensing food with the help of the First Church of Christ, Congregational, on Court Street.
“We wanted to keep feeding people, but I didn’t want to see [the members of Food Not Bombs] getting tickets,” said Anne-Marie Cannata, Executive Director of the Buttonwood Tree Cultural Center where Food Not Bombs dispenses food. “So I came to First Church, and said, ‘Why don’t we help them cook and let them use the kitchen?’ and our community at the church said, ‘Yes, we want to help them.’”
Because the kitchen at the church is approved by the Health Department and Cannata is a qualified food operator, Food Not Bombs’ current operation is legal under Middletown code. While Cannata said she sees no reason why the partnership cannot continue permanently, Food Not Bombs members would still like to be free to cook and share food on their own terms.
At a recent Middletown Board of Health Meeting, a potential ordinance was discussed that would exempt certain types of groups, like Food Not Bombs or PTOs, from permits and regulations required to serve food.
“Right now, I could conceivably be prosecuted for making a pot of stew at my house, carrying it down the street, and giving it to you,” Bobman said. “[This ordinance] would be an effort to clarify what the city regulates.”
The ordinance was postponed at the last meeting and will likely not be voted through until at least November if it gains enough support. In the meantime, Food Not Bombs members continue to meet Sundays at 11 a.m. at First Church and dispense their food at the Buttonwood Tree.
“The most important thing for us is to be able to continue cooking our food and sharing it with our friends,” Bobman said.
“There are hundreds of these organizations doing these things,” Conklin added. “They’re not able to function fully right now and that is a violation of their first amendment rights.”