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USC students waste not, want not (Columbia, SC)
by CLAUDIA SMITH BRINSON Thursday November 28, 2002 at 02:15 PM

'Food Not Bombs' program nourishes the homeless while conserving resources

On Sunday mornings near noon, a dozen USC students haul tubs of rice, beans, greens and bagels into Finlay Park. They set up a folding table, drape across it a sheet with "Food Not Bombs" painted on it, arrange their offerings, and then greet the familiar hungry folk lining up.

It's simple: Cadge food from restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores. Serve it free to the needy.

It's basic: What would be wasted is put to use. Collect food that would be thrown away. Give it to people who would go hungry.

It's better than free: In this country, we discard 14 million tons of food a year. If we diverted just 5 percent of the food wasted, we could save $50 million in landfill costs each year. Better yet, we could feed 4 million people.

That's why some University of South Carolina students started Food Not Bombs in Columbia. Purely a service effort, Food Not Bombs begs food from the places that sell it -- or throw it away -- and they serve it to the hungry on the street.

"Food Not Bombs is not an organization or group; it is an event," the students' flier states. The group was started nationally in Boston in 1980, an outgrowth of anti-nuclear protests. It spread across the country without staff or offices, just a how-to manual.

"We have all this food that's thrown away and all these people who need to eat and a government spending money on defense and war while people are hungry in our own hometown," says Matt Smith, a USC freshman from Summerville and one of the local organizers.

Food Not Bombs began here when Matt Smith, Andy Smith and Daniel Regenscheit, longing to do a good and political deed, marched up and down dorm halls collecting change. That paid to print fliers. Students met in the middle of Russell House, ideas flew about and a movement was reborn.

"We think food is a basic human right," Regenscheit says. "We're just trying to figure out how to get extra food and give it away."

'A LOT OF RICE'

"Every Sunday the food gets better and better," says Robert McMillen, 39 and homeless since surgery for several ailments. He has dined with Food Not Bombs since the beginning, Oct. 20.

McMillen helps himself to carrots, black-eyed peas, cabbage and fried chicken. He's happy with his meal, unaware the students are mourning a big pot of pasta they burned.

"The cooking is a total challenge," says Catherine Baab, a 21-year-old junior at USC. "I made the chili, and it's the first successful dish I ever made."

Cooking is a matter of trust and luck for the novice chefs. Whatever is given is combined however seems best in a dorm kitchen with limited pots and pans.

"Mostly we have rice, a lot of rice," says Matt Smith. "It's our staple because restaurants make so much. Whatever else we get, we mix with rice."

Having enough food is also a matter of trust and luck. "The first time, we were scraping the bottom of the pots," says Andy Smith. "Last time, we were handing out extra loaves of bread."

The students count on a few fliers and word of mouth to attract the hungry, so they never know how many will come. No one has to prove need or do anything in return for the meal.

William Heller found out from Rick, who didn't want his last name used because his family is unaware of his straits.

"I found out by accident," says Rick, who is unemployed. "I saw them put up the table. I saw the same thing in Michigan. They said, 'Here's some food,' and I said, 'I don't need it,' and I left money. Now I find myself in the position (that) it's a blessing."

Says 56-year-old Heller, who lays acoustic tile, "These kids, if they can keep their patience with us, it's a good idea."

At the Food Not Bombs table many of the men -- so far, those dining are all male -- are day laborers. They work, mostly construction or demolition cleanup, but can't make ends meet. Or they work for temp services and can't find enough work. Or they're out of prison and looking for work.

"It's not that they aren't trying," Matt Smith says.

NO ONE'S UNCHANGED

The students started out with a few messages. "Feed the homeless," says Regenscheit. "Raise awareness of hunger. Raise awareness of the war machine and violence. Promote tolerance."

But good deeds work in both directions, affecting giver and receiver. No one remains the same.

"I grew up in Richmond, in the affluent suburbs," Baab says. "It was shocking to see in America there is this standard of living that's allowed to persist."

For Baab, the abstraction of "the homeless" has been erased, replaced by particular people, known and in need.

"I think I had fear," she says. "Now I remember people's names. I talk to them, sit down with them, have a meal with them." Food Not Bombs makes a point of this, eating together; the students call this "a sharing."

The students also face their side of the equation: the negative aspect of affluence. Smith and Regenscheit, high-school classmates who fondly describe their families as "average, middle-class, white Republicans," are stunned by the waste encountered.

They beg food from restaurants throwing out "full hot-bars of stuff," notes Smith. "They're getting ready to close, and a whole bar of food is sitting there."

And they're trying to find friendly grocers.

"I just think it's really cool," says Ben DuBard, grocery manager at Rosewood Market. "With Food Not Bombs, (a contribution) goes directly to the people that need it; no bureaucracy, no organizational costs. And they have a great message, too."

DuBard gives the students preservative-free bread that would be tossed on the seventh day, as well as items hitting expiration dates. He plans to add produce and deli donations and permanent pick-up spots in the market's cooler, freezer and back-of-store storage.

To avoid waste themselves, the students plan to stop using disposable plates and utensils. To that purpose, they wandered door-to-door in Shandon, a neighborhood near campus, collecting plates and silverware.

"It has taken over my life," says Regenscheit. "Now, whenever I walk around and see something thrown away, I think, 'Can we use this?'"

BUDGET OF ZERO

Concern over waste also led to controversy: Should meat be served?

Typically, Food Not Bombs only offers vegan meals -- no animal products whatsoever. As the name makes obvious, a statement about priorities, about nonviolence, is being declared.

Participants collect bread, rice and potatoes, fruits and vegetables. The chance spoiled or contaminated food might be served is greatly reduced when no meat, eggs or dairy products are handled, the Food Not Bombs handbook notes.

Other purposes also are met. "Eating vegetarian promotes healthy living," Regenscheit says.

It's environmentally sound and economical, Smith says. An acre for cereal produces five times more protein than an acre for meat production.

Regenscheit also says, "The livestock system is pretty cruel." But he acknowledges most students, and their patrons, eat meat. So deciding whether to serve donated fried chicken is complicated. Decisions are made by consensus, and the debate about meat rages, face-to-face and via e-mail discussions.

"If we're given it, we use it. Why throw it out?" says Smith. "Really, our point is there's already too much waste. And a lot of people on the street aren't vegetarian. You eat what you can get."

And, at this point, the students take what they can get. They have only two cars at their disposal. "We claim to have a budget of zero," Regenscheit says proudly.

Which contrasts with their country's budget and priorities: "Like the $34 billion (increase in defense spending) Bush got. If he didn't have that, think of the people who could be fed," Smith says.

The two agree feeding the hungry during talk of war hones their sense of who they want to be, what they want to care about.

"You notice people who are floating by, not really involved," Smith says. "They don't think they can make a difference whatsoever.

"But there's a lot you can do just by caring."

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