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Cooking For a Cause and Serving It Up on Ponce

Food Not Bombs brings a nutritious buffet to anyone in need, every Sunday in front of Midtown Place shopping center

While some are in church on Sunday mornings, or on the golf course, or having another cup of coffee with their newspaper, a whole lot of cooking is going on in a small, run-down house in the Edgewood neighborhood just south of Candler Park.

A whole lot of cooking to help feed the hungry, the homeless, or anyone who could use a healthy and generous meal in the great outdoors.

In this case, the great outdoors is the Ponce de Leon Avenue sidewalk adjacent to the Midtown Place Shopping Center (home to Whole Foods and Home Depot). It’s the same area where laborers hang out in hopes of landing work that will last a day or two, maybe more.

Every Sunday morning, without fail, a small group of activists operating as part of the Atlanta chapter of the international Food Not Bombs organization, push out of bed and begin preparing a nice selection of crowd-size vegetarian dishes. One day of food this month included baked yams with garlic, a greens-and-cucumbers salad, a cabbage-veggies stir-fry, much more.

Dell “Earthworm” MacLean, Marlon Kautz, Vincent Castillenti and Charlie Vick are among the regular Sunday cooks and servers. Their enterprise is part of the Food Not Bombs movement founded in the early 1980s and now active in more than 1,000 towns and cities in the world.

“Part of the mission of Food Not Bombs is not just to serve food,” Kautz said, “but to be a regular, visible reminder that we have a poverty problem right here in the U.S. We are out there reminding everyone that people are hungry and we can’t just ignore it.”

The meal provided by these activists has been a Sunday mainstay near the Ponce shopping center for two years now.

“Except one time when our van broke down,” MacLean said. There’s “been some stress lately, because we don’t have a vehicle.” They arrange to borrow one each week.

Food Not Bombs, active in Atlanta since 1995, wants to see more government attention and spending on basic human rights such as hunger, poverty and education.

“Wouldn’t it be great if our schools had all the money they need, and the Army had to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber?”

That was the wording on a discarded poster that energized the organization’s founders more than 30 years ago. Food Not Bombs adheres to three key principles: No leaders nor headquarters; all food given out must be vegetarian and/or vegan, and free to anyone, without restrictions; and all actions within the movement must be nonviolent.

“We’re also extremely oriented against food waste,” Kautz said. “The commercial industry wastes a lot of food, and we’re able to put it to good use. People are grateful for it, and so are we.”

For their Atlanta meal servings, which include a similar effort in Hurt Park near Georgia State University (5 p.m. every Wednesday),  the group relies on food donations from various sources. Staples such as soy sauce, rice, oats, beans and cooking oil are harder to come by, MacLean said.

The four getting set on this recent Sunday in the Edgewood house are like busy birds, quietly flitting about the kitchen as they shake on more seasonings, stir the simmering cabbage mix, check the diced yams in the oven, toss the salad, and cut up more fruit for blending into smoothies. They only have one standard-size blender, so it takes a while to whip up two or three gallons. But these earnest social activists in their late 20s and early 30s are used to going with whatever they’ve got.

“Ahh, a large blender, yeah, might be nice,” MacLean said, as she pushed the button to juice up more fruit. Sometimes there are plums or apples. Sometimes bananas. It all depends on what’s been donated that week, or what’s on sale with any money that’s been scraped together in what Kautz called a “no-budget operation.”

By 1 p.m., this foursome has loaded everything into the borrowed vehicle. By 1:30 p.m., they will have tables set up on the sidewalk. There’s one table for the many nutritious dishes and the smoothies, plus fresh fruits, jugs of juice and three donated pies. There’s another table that displays literature about Food Not Bombs and other causes. For example, these same activists are also involved in Copwatch of East Atlanta, which provides “Know Your Rights” workshops for dealing with police.

A few middle-aged men, such as William Wright of Decatur, have been lingering near this stretch of sidewalk, hoping to get work today.

“This is my first time getting to have this Sunday meal, but I appreciate it,” Wright said. “I know what it’s like to be hungry. I wish I didn’t, but I do know.”

This Sunday meal on Ponce used to attract 25, sometimes 30 people. These days, about a dozen are likely to partake.

MacLean, Kautz, Castillenti and Vick are joined by a few other Food Not Bombs supporters and volunteers, including Jenell Holden, who helps pull together FNB’s Wednesday meal giveaway in Hurt Park (and who could use more volunteers for that).

After Wright and a few other folks have served themselves, the FNB insiders fill up their own plates.

“We eat this food to, because we are all in this together,” Kautz said. “This is about solidarity, not charity. I do this not so much to help, but because I know I could be in a situation one day when I needed someone to help me.”

“This is often the best meal we eat all week,” MacLean said.

MacLean added that by sharing a meal with some who are down on their luck, Food Not Bombs workers often learn of their hardships and can offer advice or assistance.

“Some we’ve met here have told us that they’ve been ripped off after getting hired to do work — like not getting paid,” MacLean said. “We have been able to put legal pressure on to help them get the pay they were promised.”

A while back, shopping center security tried to get the group to leave the area. That attempt went nowhere because the group does not serve its meal on shopping center property, but on the sidewalk. Sidewalks are public property, so technically the group has a right to be there, MacLean said. (If the group gets hassled, it can whip out a letter dating to 2000 from the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Georgia asserting their right to serve meals in public areas).

“A lot of what we do is just about basic respect,” Kautz said. “We are having a meal and sharing thoughts and information with some of the people you might drive by every day but never look at. We are connecting as a community.”

How to take part: The Atlanta chapter of Food Not Bombs is always in need of more volunteers, as well as donations — from food and supplies to cash. Folks can also help by preparing a vegetarian dish and bringing it to the sidewalk by 1:30 p.m. on any Sunday. Please email Dell MacLean: delldot@gmail.com or call 404 939 7699.

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