For the last 13 years a group of local citizens have been gathering each Sunday with the purpose of feeding Omaha’s homeless and less fortunate. Known as Food Not Bombs: Omaha, the local effort is an offshoot of the loosely formed national organization that goes by the same name. Food Not Bombs originated in the 1980’s in San Francisco as a response to the growing homelessness problem and the increase in military spending near the end of the Cold War. Organizers did not see the value in ramping up military spending as the homeless population was rapidly increasing, a large portion of which were Vietnam veterans.
Omaha’s incarnation of Food Not Bombs started about 15 years ago and has been serving vegan and vegetarian meals nearly every Sunday since. From time to time the organization has had meals on other days but the Sunday meals have been the stalwart of the program. Even in snow and rain members have worked to provide a reliable and healthy meal source for the less fortunate of Omaha.
The Food Not Bombs group gathers about noon at the Table Grace Restaurant on Farnam Street. Table Grace is a Christian based organization that offers meals on a “pay-what-you-can” basis. As a Christian organization Table Grace does not offer meals on Sunday, so they decided to grant Food Not Bombs usage of their kitchen facilities about a year ago. The access to a professional kitchen has allowed Food Not Bombs the ability to more easily prepare large quantities of food more efficiently. Another advantage of Table Grace is its location just two blocks away from the serving location.
Although Food Not Bombs utilizes the kitchen of a Christian business, the organization itself is one of the few service organizations that is completely secular. This secular nature is actually an appealing aspect for many of the volunteers who are non-religious or simply more private in regards to their spirituality. The Omaha chapter of Food Not Bombs also differs from most social organizations in the fact that their only purpose is serving meals. The group does not engage in political, religious, or social activism. They do not march, they do not organize protests, they simply serve food. The organization prides itself on being apolitical where everyone is welcome to help or eat.
On a typical Sunday the Omaha group meets at Table Grace about noon. At that time the day’s volunteers will survey that week’s donated produce items and brainstorm meal ideas. Long -time member Julie Kasper likened the process to a Food Network show like “Chopped” or “Iron Chef” where the participants are required to come up with three dishes using only the few ingredients they have.
The distinctive aspect to the meals served by Food Not Bombs is the fact that the meals are either Vegetarian or Vegan. This is for a variety of reasons both ethical and practical. Plant based meals tend to be healthier that meat based meals, more easily conform to dietary restrictions due to diabetes or religious observations, and are generally less susceptible to food borne illness.
A typical meal consists of a green salad, hearty soup, and a dessert. The main course is usually a soup consisting of roasted vegetables which allows the vegetables to cook quicker as well as produce a chunkier, more filling soup. The day’s offerings take about two hours to prepare and are driven the two blocks to the Gene Leahy Mall. In a matter of minutes, tables are set up, the food is uncovered, and the serving line begins. The group uses sturdy plastic plates and bowls that are collected and re-used. What little garbage is created is bagged up and taken away at the end of the food service. The food service only lasts for about an hour, but gives dozens of attendees plenty of time to eat and socialize.
As quickly as they set up the group loads up the empty pots, dishes and unclaimed vegetables back into the truck for the two block drive to back to Table Grace. Nothing is left behind. Whereas other Food Not Bombs groups have had to work around ordinances passed against feeding the homeless, inquiries from the police, and even some arrests, the Omaha group has not had any sustained resistance to their efforts.
Long-time member Eve Cheshire, the de facto matriarch of the group, mentioned that from time to time there have been ordinances proposed to the city council to curtail the feeding of the homeless. In every case to date the proposals have been promptly voted down.
The local Food Not Bombs group is always looking for volunteers. Meal prep begins at noon on Sunday at Table Grace. At 2 pm the meal is served and the volunteers return to Table Grace about an hour later for final clean up. Volunteers can join for all or part of the afternoon. The total time from start to finish is about 4 hours. There is no age limit as there have been volunteers as young as 5 years old and over 80. The organization also accepts food donations as currently the lion’s share of produce comes from a single Omaha grocery store. More information can be obtained by visiting the Omaha Food Not Bombs Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/6551777294/