Yes, Virginia—there is a free lunch

“We refuse to ask permission to eat!” That’s the legend emblazoned on posters placed around town announcing Food Not Bombs’ Dec. 2 free-food rally in Pritchard Park. But on Dec. 9, the group did ask Asheville City Council for permission to regularly feed the hungry in a public park — and to waive the $25-per-occurrence park-use fee. [See also this week’s regular City Council coverage, “Just the facts.”]

The Dec. 2 rally was called, in part, to protest the end of another local group’s ability to serve free food in Pritchard Park. New Foundation had been dishing out free food downtown for nearly three years — first at the “Blue Bus,” parked on Eagle Street, and more recently at Pritchard Park. As reported in “No Shoes, No Shirts … No Rights?” [Nov. 18 Xpress], New Foundation’s free food service was abruptly shut down last month by the Asheville Police Department, due to what police characterized as complaints by merchants. And even if the merchants hadn’t been complaining, New Foundation would still have needed a $25 permit each time they served food at Pritchard Park. Asheville Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson told Xpress that these permits are granted at his discretion. “And I would not be inclined to grant a permit to [New Foundation],” he said, “because of the merchants’ complaints.”

Enter the Asheville contingent of Food Not Bombs, a national group known for its often-militant stance on feeding the hungry. “We decided to [hold the Pritchard Park rally] because, when New Foundation was asked to stop serving free food, [we] realized that there were still homeless people and other needy people who were depending on that meal, and that someone needed to step in and fill the void,” explains group spokesperson Jared Taber.

Food Not Bombs served meals and free take-home produce to about 60 people at the Dec. 2 rally/protest, without incident — but not without worry about how the police would react. As Asheville homeless resident/activist Mickey Mahaffey, who depends on such free meals, explains, “I was really concerned as to what might happen between the police and these people at Pritchard Park. … So I went to see Mayor Sitnick … and I told her what was going on, and that I really believed that we could settle this peacefully, that we could work it out without some big [controversy] going on around it.” Mahaffey reports that Sitnick, with the blessing of Brinson and Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino, was amenable to the idea of the one-day-only exception to city policy regarding public-park-use permits.

As promised, the Asheville Police Department did not interfere with the event. Several officers, including Lt. Jon Kirkpatrick, of the city’s Police and Community Together (P.A.C.T.) office, visited the rally and told Food Not Bombs members that, while they would not be allowed to serve food at Pritchard Park without a permit in the future, they could do so on that day. The officers also suggested that the group speak with Mayor Sitnick about the possibility of moving the free meal service to City/County Plaza, another public park — provided they followed the city’s permit process. (Brinson had OK’d the idea, as well.)

“I’d be willing to consider the City/County Plaza option, after I discuss it with the rest of the group,” said Taber at the Dec. 2 rally, while registering disappointment that the food could not regularly be served in what he described as the “less threatening” Pritchard Park. “City/County Plaza is awfully close to the police station and very ‘officially’ represents the establishment or whatever, and that might scare people away,” he noted, adding that he understands why City/County Plaza might be a more appropriate area, in the city’s view, to serve free food: “It’s located away from most merchants, so their businesses wouldn’t be affected — which is what they seem to be complaining about.” Taber also expressed concern about the permit fees, which he said the group can’t afford: “If we had to raise the $25 each time to go to the bureaucracy, we wouldn’t be able to serve [as much] food, and the hungry would suffer.”

But City Council took care of that objection at its Dec. 8 meeting, voting 7-0 to approve a temporary waiver of the park-use fee and allow Food Not Bombs and other groups — including New Foundation — to serve free meals at City/County Plaza, provided they obtain a permit from Asheville Parks and Recreation. Any permanent fee waiver, however, will require final approval by the city’s Fees-and-Charges subcommittee.

The decision didn’t come without a fight — and obvious discomfort on the part of some Council members. Mayor Sitnick broached the subject by noting that a precedent had already been set by issuing free “street-preaching” permits to the evangelists regularly seen and heard at Pritchard and other city parks. “Perhaps we could extend that [ordinance] to include a street-feeding permit,” she said.

An often-tense discussion followed. Council member Barbara Field expressed health concerns about the free food service. Who would oversee sanitation? Where would food servers wash their hands? What if someone died from food poisoning? Field was particularly upset when Mahaffey pointed out, “There’s so much surplus food [wasted] by restaurants in this town that you can routinely pull three or four loaves of fresh bread out of a dumpster.”

“I’m horrified at the dumpster diving,” Field exclaimed, just before Council voted on the measure. “Is that where [Food Not Bombs] gets the free food they’re serving?”

Mahaffey and Food Not Bombs representatives were quick to reassure her. Mahaffey explained that he was simply noting how much food goes to waste every day, while people go hungry — and that restaurants might be inclined to donate surplus food to groups like Food Not Bombs and New Foundation, if they saw that it was being put to good use.

In response to concerns about food poisoning, Taber related that Food Not Bombs serves vegan food — which, because it contains no meat or dairy products, poses little threat of salmonella and other common bacteria associated with food poisoning. And Food Not Bombs member Nathan Smith posed the question, “What’s a bigger health concern: malnutrition, or the small possibility of salmonella?”

Field suggested that the group join forces with a local church or other organization, so that it could serve food inside, where kitchen facilities would be available. “In my liberal heart, I’m really concerned about people who don’t have enough to eat, and I respect your right to live as you choose,” she said.

“We serve a lot of people who aren’t Christian,” Mahaffey replied. “Churches serve good food, but there is a Christian agenda.” He added, also, that Food Not Bombs serves a wide spectrum of people, some young, some old — and not all of them are homeless.

But Regina Trantham of the Battery Hill Association, a downtown-merchant group, asked Council to postpone any decision on waiving permit fees until after the holidays, saying the visible presence of indigent people receiving the food could be bad for business. “It’s hurting the merchants,” she asserted. “I’ve had to pick up trash after these groups left [Pritchard Park].”

“We’re not saying throw them out,” said Trantham, insisting that merchants are supportive of community projects, “but look at it more closely.” She also posed another question: “Who’ll pay the bill if someone gets sick?”

More discussion ensued, and Council member O.T. Tomes praised the efforts of the young people involved in Food Not Bombs. He also pointed out that North Carolina’s “Good Samaritan Act,” like similar laws in many other states, exempts such charitable acts from some of the regulations affecting commercial enterprises.

On a motion by Earl Cobb, seconded by Tomes, Council voted unanimously to temporarily waive the $25 park-use fee for any group that wants to serve food at City/County Plaza, provided they obtain a park-use permit and abide by its conditions, including cleaning up thoroughly after each event. “We’re in a bad position,” noted Cloninger just before the vote, “because we’ll look like ‘bah-humbugs’ if we vote against this, even though I do have some serious concerns.”

Food Not Bombs obtained its permit the very next morning and will serve free meals at City/County Plaza on Sundays and Thursdays. starting Dec. 13.

But group members declined to comment on whether they see the new arrangement as a victory for anti-hunger groups in Asheville, or as an unacceptable compromise with city government.

“Food Not Bombs does have a history of believing that it’s almost always a mistake to compromise with the government, when it comes to giving out free food,” member Mark Adams had said at the Dec. 2 rally, adding, “The city [and the government in general] should just leave us alone while we attempt to feed as many people as we can.”

And James Taber, co-founder of the Asheville Food Not Bombs group, reported after the City Council meeting, in a somewhat weary tone, “It’s great that the actual food service will be able to go on [legally]. We’re making an effort to comply [with city laws], but the fact remains that we had to force this conversation.” Food Not Bombs, he added, has no intention of discontinuing its free-food service, whatever the consequences.

But Mahaffey, while expressing surprise at some Council members’ resistance to the park-use-fee waiver, sees the decision as a big step in the right direction. To him, Mayor Sitnick’s support and the Asheville Police Department’s restraint during the Dec. 2 rally is a victory for the city. As Mahaffey puts it, “We were able to pull the community together to solve our conflicts in a spirit of restraint and compromise.”

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