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Tampa Food Not Bombs Activists Arrested for Feeding Hungry People

Food Not Bombs activists serve free meals to hungry people in a public park. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Seven volunteers for Tampa Food Not Bombs, part of a loose-knit network sharing vegan and vegetarian meals with hungry people around the world, were arrested on Saturday for serving food in a park without a permit.

The Tampa Bay Times reports the activists were serving up coffee, bagels and platefuls of quinoa and mushrooms when a police lieutenant warned them to shut down or face arrest. When they did not stop, officers moved in and arrested seven people, including a man who reached for a bagel.

“We’re doing an act of kindness and mutual aid, and that should not be criminalized,” Jimmy Dunson, one of the arrested activists, told the Times. “There shouldn’t be this giant bureaucracy that keeps people from being kind to each other.”

Police spokesman Steve Hegarty said the activists were not arrested simply for serving food, but rather for doing so without the permit needed to serve in a city park. Hegarty added that officers who observed the activists giving away coffee and bagels in the park days earlier had warned them they would be arrested if caught again. “We warned them: You set up table, chairs and everything, that’s against ordinance,” Hegarty told the Times. “We told them exactly what would happen. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Some activists claimed the latest crackdown was more about keeping up appearances as thousands of visitors flocked to Tampa for the College Football Playoff National Championship than it was about food safety concerns, calling the police action a “criminalization of compassion.” Others noted that obtaining the requisite insurance to serve food publicly is prohibitively expensive.

This wasn’t the first time Tampa Food Not Bombs members were arrested while sharing meals — in 2004, three of the group’s volunteers were apprehended in Herman C. Massey Park. Food Not Bombs collectives in other Florida cities, including Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale, have also run afoul of the law.

Tampa Food Not Bombs members defiantly regrouped in Lykes Gaslight Square Park to serve more meals on Tuesday. While there were tense moments as police stood by and watched, nobody was arrested. The group says it “has no plans to stop sharing food with the homeless and hungry and will continue to defy unjust laws that criminalize compassion and mutual aid.”

“We intend to expose the city’s cruelty in the face of thousands in our community who are struggling with issues of food insecurity, mental and medical health issues, poverty, and homelessness,” Tampa Food Not Bombs said in an email to Creative Loafing Tampa. “If the city will not address these problems, the least they can do is not get in the way and stop others from addressing these needs. Compassion should never be criminalized.”

According to Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger relief organization, more than 200,000 people in Hillsborough County, were Tampa is located, were food insecure in 2012, meaning they lacked reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Out of 3.1 million food insecure people in Florida, 1.1 million were children, meaning more than one in four children in the state were food insecure in 2012.

Nationwide, Feeding America reported 42.2. million Americans living in food insecure households, including 6.3 million households with very low food security — defined by the US government as “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake,” in 2015.

Tampa Food Not Bombs is planning yet another unauthorized meal share on Saturday January 14 in Lykes Gaslight Square Park.

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