Last month, the City of Middletown reached a settlement with Middletown Food Not Bombs, agreeing to pay $15,000 to Livingston, Adler, Pulda, Meiklejohn & Kelly, the law firm representing Food Not Bombs. The firm has decided to donate half of this sum to the St. Vincent DePaul Place soup kitchen.
“A recent commitment by the city to compensate Food Not Bombs for $15,000 in legal costs…represents a long overdue acknowledgment that Food Not Bombs was selectively and inappropriately targeted,” read a statement released by Food Not Bombs.
In March 2009, Middletown Food Not Bombs, a group which prepares and shares vegetarian food on the corner of Liberty and Main Streets every Sunday afternoon, was issued a cease and desist order from the Middletown Health Department on the grounds that the food was not prepared in a licensed kitchen. The group, which includes several Wesleyan Students, moved to appeal the order, which ended in the settlement from the City after months of litigation.
“It has been almost two years since the City of Middletown issued a cease and desist order to Middletown Food Not Bombs and subsequently employed it to disrupt our weekly food sharing, cite and arrest participants and seize and destroy countless pounds of food destined for hungry bellies,” the Food Not Bombs statement read. “Despite the threat of punitive consequences we never missed a meal, insisting throughout this period that both the morality and legality of this harassment was invalid.”
Acting City Attorney Timothy Lynch did not respond to a phone message left by The Argus regarding the issue.
In response to the group’s appeal of the Health Department’s decision, as well as to objections from various charitable organizations which were subsequently investigated under similar health concerns, the Connecticut state legislature passed changes to food distribution laws in October 2009, which stated that nonprofit groups involved with food-sharing are not required to meet the same health code requirements as for-profit organizations.
“Once that change went into effect, that made it possible for the parties to get together about the resolution, because really the legislative change made clear what was and was not permissible,” said Peter Goselin, the attorney who represented Food Not Bombs. “Clearly at that point the activities of Food Not Bombs in Middletown were going to be deemed lawful and permissible.”
Goselin claimed that Food Not Bombs played a central role in prompting the legislative reform.
“I don’t think it would have ever come about without the folks from Food Not Bombs being willing to take up this fight and raise the issue,” he said. “Given the amount of work that we’ve put into the case, [the $15,000 settlement] is a significant compromise, but we didn’t start this case because we were expecting to make a lot of money and obviously the folks at Food Not Bombs didn’t start the case because they were expecting to make money on it either. It was really about changing the law.”
Food Not Bombs, however, said their focus was not on instigating legal changes.
“Despite our indirect role in its passage, our goal was never the statewide legislative reform which ultimately protected our activities and those of other grassroots anti-hunger activists from state intervention,” reads the group’s statement. “Rather, our commitment has always been to the elimination of structural inequality of which hunger is but a symptom, to the abandonment of militarism and to the emergence of voluntary mutual aid as the essential characteristic of our social interactions.”
Goselin said that it is difficult to determine at this point whether there were underlying political motivations behind the City’s attempts to shut down Food Not Bombs beyond the cited health concerns. He described how the economic downturn over the past couple of years has forced city governments to adapt and modify their responses to new forms of community organizing and mutual support.
“I think a lot of municipalities are being challenged by the new approaches which focus on the idea of neighbors helping neighbors instead of focusing on charities helping poor people,” he said.