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Feeding the Proud with Humble Soup

Friday, July 17, 2009 at 08:39 AM EDT

Food Not Bombs continues to be a very interesting experience in York. Far from feeding lots of homeless people (though Big Issue vendors are always thankful) we seem to be finding ourselves in a very different struggle: proving that there is such a thing as a free lunch, something that isn’t easy in a city where many residents seem to proud not to spend money on lunch.

We’d been set up and serving food for maybe half an hour, and as seems to be becoming the norm, we were struggling to get rid of it. Somehow, free food just doesn’t appeal to most people in York. Interestingly the Muller Rice bus in Parliament Street had experienced queues all morning, as people got their free sample of highly packaged and processed (but supposedly healthy) brand name food.

Our stall was getting rid of its food rather less quickly. Then along came a woman who I feel summed up the situation quite nicely. “I appreciate what your doing” she began, “but I think you should be giving food to those who really need it, like the homeless”. Fair enough, one might think. But she continued “You see, I can afford to pay for my food”. This, joined with the tone of her voice (which might not have been deliberate, I realise), seemed to convey a sense that said “I’m not poor enough to need your free food, and that’s what matters to me”.

Now, I might be extrapolating too much from what little was said, as she moved off rather too quickly for me to ask her the question I wanted to, and its quite possible this is not the most common reason to pass the offer by. But I suspect its common enough to be worth passing comment on. One piece of evidence for this is the number of people who refuse our food whilst heading to the bakery straight opposite, who’s business we seem bizarrely unable to put a dent in (not that we want to).

The thing that one forgets when standing in a street and offering food to “Kings and Beggars and everyone in between” is that the experience can be profound for both Beggars and Kings. To the Beggar, this is a sign that someone cares enough to hand them free food. But to the King, this is a challenge to eat the same food as beggars, and that can be a big challenge, one that involves considerable humility.

Somehow people have come to view buying their own lunch as a status symbol. “Because I can afford to spend money on my food, I am not Poor, and therefore I have Value in Society”. The thing is, its very hard to otherise those with whom you share a meal, and that’s one of the many aims of Food Not Bombs. I shan’t even begin to claim we’ve got it right here in York, but we’re getting there.

If we are successful with Food Not Bombs in York, it won’t be because we’re feeding loads and loads of homeless people, or even Big Issue vendors, and it probably won’t be because we stop people buying food from sandwich shops or stop the waste culture in society. I’m beginning to see the mission as more about challenging the pride which people in this city have about not accepting free food, through which they are able to separate themselves from those they perceive as beneath them. And this could be a much bigger mission.