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Nothing Wasted

Ottawa Food Not Bombs launches war on hunger

by David Koch

Jonah Aglak wears a light coat and eats a plate of spaghetti near Rideau Street.

I ask if he’s homeless.

“I have a home in Nunavut, but not in Ottawa,” Aglak says, before suddenly standing and limping away into the night.

“Good food,” he adds, returning his plate to the spot where Tupperware bowls of stew and steamed veggies sit on blocks of concrete.

I’m with Food Not Bombs in the covered walkway near the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa. I eat two bowls of hearty stew and some sweet fried banana cakes. The food is good and it’s free.

Loose Ends

Organizers trace the origins of the loose-knit Food Not Bombs network, which spans North America, to the anti-nuke movement in New England in 1980. It has existed in Ottawa for years, on and off.

It re-emerged with the Occupy movement, says volunteer John Bainbridge. But when police evicted Occupy Ottawa from Confederation Park in November 2011, some activists found themselves at loose ends. So they got together again.

For seven or eight weeks, the group has been here each Sunday, serving free vegetarian or vegan suppers to anyone who’s hungry. It is a protest against hunger and war, which members call twin excesses of capitalism.

Damaged Goods

The city is a case study. We’re just across the street from the Rideau Centre’s food court, a huge warm room that smells like vinegar, where eight pieces of fried chicken go for $14.99 with a side of fries (a deal that that KFC calls the “Streetwise Bucket”).

Garbage bins in the mall fill quickly with plastic utensils, foam plates and greasy paper boxes, some still bearing food.

“There’s so much waste in our society,” says Bainbridge.

The group gets their produce donated from local markets or salvaged from dumpsters.

“Maybe it’s a little bruised, it doesn’t look pretty enough to sell, and most places just throw that out, even though it’s perfectly good food,” Bainbridge says. Members cook the goods in their kitchens and bring it to the underpass.

War Measures

Food Not Bombs volunteer Jeremie Lavoie says it’s “disturbing, sickening” to see the Conservative government spend millions on glorifying the War of 1812 while people on the streets go hungry.

“I think war is being increasingly celebrated,” he says.

We’re just one block from the National War Memorial, where larger-than-life bronze statues of 22 military personnel appear to be marching through an immense granite arch crowned by two winged figures, meant to symbolize the triumph of Peace and Freedom after war.

Serving food at the underpass represents another kind of struggle.

A volunteer identifying herself as Jenna says she lived on the street after slipping on water from a burst pipe in her cockroach-infested social housing project, an injury that pushed her towards a mental breakdown.

“You could easily be put into this situation,” says Jenna, who was homeless for about six years.
She used to sleep beneath this downtown underpass. Back then, a water hose was her alarm clock.

“I used to wake up and the street cleaners would be spraying the brick that we were sleeping on,” says Jenna, gesturing toward a sloping corner that’s now off-limits, blocked by a fence.

“I feel like I’m paying my dues to be here again,” says the mother of two, who now cooks for Food Not Bombs.

Write a Book About it

As the rain stops, we pack up. I offer to help with dishes and we walk through Byward Market.
Our route is designed to reach people too spaced-out on drugs to make it to local soup kitchens for dinner.

“These people get caught up and they forget about dinnertime,” says Sue-Lynne Manone, a Food Not Bombs volunteer who’s been homeless for about 14 weeks.

We pause outside the Salvation Army, where two-dozen people looking hard up are talking and smoking on the sidewalk.

Manone hands out leftover fruit salad and the last few banana fritters to people who gather around the small red wagon that we carry the food in.

Some people mutter or suddenly yell.

“You wanna write a book about it?” slurs one man in my general direction as I hold out my voice recorder, a slick-looking mobile phone.

Someone sings the words, “I wish you a Merry Christmas,” then trails off with an incoherent line that may reference fruit salad.

“Well I’m singing the melody!” she exclaims to nobody in particular.

Mutual Bafflement

We walk through Byward Market to the home of volunteer Chris Brown, whose kitchen is frequently the site of meal preparation for Food Not Bombs. We put away the remaining leftovers and wash the plastic cutlery and plates.

I mention the Rideau Centre food court. The pricey fast food. All those trays of plastic and paper, thrown away. The waste.

Brown says two homeless people, filled with enthusiasm, entered the food court last week and announced to the people they could eat at Food Not Bombs for free.

“Everyone just looked at them really weirdly,” Brown says.

It suggests the relationship between Food Not Bombs and the world: one of mutual bafflement.

The existence of Food Not Bombs implies unrest, malaise with the social system.

But it also implies a sense of community and progressive change among the disaffected and displaced, says Manone. And that’s what appeals to people.

“We’re not just sitting there doing nothing, we’re actually talking to each other about solutions,” says Manone.

Food Not Bombs now serves free vegan or vegetarian food every Sunday at 4 pm at Ottawa’s City Hall (110 Laurier Ave. West).

This article first appeared in the Leveller, Vol. 5, No. 4.

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Topics: FoodPoverty

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