Friday, September 8th, 2000

San Francisco EXAMINER Newspaper - Editorial Page A-19

by Nancy Loewen & Peter A. Brandt

Walk into just about any soup kitchen or homeless shelter and you will meet well-meaning staff and volunteers serving food that would make a health professional wince.

The standard lunch - bologna and processed cheese on white bread - is a nutritional nightmare. Bologna, usually loaded with fat and nitrates, is far from healthy. Meat eating has been closely linked to heart disease, several cancers, high blood pressure and obesity.

Nor does processed cheese bestow any favors. Dairy products are a great source of unhealthy saturated fat and cholesterol, and a sub-par source of calcium. Nuts, calcium-fortified orange juice, and leafy green vegetables are better calcium sources than milk.

Although America's meat- and dairy-centered diet is a poor one in general, it poses extra hazards to the estimated 2 million American homeless. The milk and meat of food animals contain antibiotic traces known to comprimise our immune systems. If you are homeless, the last thing you need compounding the physical and emotional stress and uncertainties is a weaken immune system.

Fortunately, at least one organization has exerted major efforts to promote healthy food to the homeless. Food Not Bombs - a remarkably persistent network of volunteers distributing wholesome vegetarian food to the hungry in San Francisco and more than 70 other cities in North America, Europe and beyond - this year marks its 20th anniversary.

In San Francisco, a free outdoor concert celebrated the milestone in June. Unfortunately, distributing free vegetarian food even in such a relatively progressive city can prove amazingly difficult. Since 1988, San Francisco police have made more than 1,000 arrests of Food Not Bombs volunteers. Co-founder Keith McHenry was arrested dozens of times, on such absurd charges as " felony possession of a milk crate. " ( That one was later dropped. )

Apparently, having the temerity to share beans, rice, bagels, veggie soup, fresh fruit and green salads with the hungry in San Francisco's public spaces constituted criminality. Nevertheless, undaunted volunteers continued pursuing their " radical " food-sharing agendas, despite an atmosphere at times so hostile it prompted Amnesty International to consider adding imprisoned Food Not Bombs volunteers to its " Prisoners of Conscience " list.

Why do Food Not Bombs members shun meat ? For starters, they recognize the callousness necessary to slaughter animals as the same callousness perpetuating homelessness. They understand that ending billions of animal lives each year could only happen in a society with a moral bottom line of " might makes right. "

Food Not Bombs members follow the principle that the quality of mercy is not strained, nor should it arbitrarily contained within genders, races or species. Additionally, Food Not Bombs members realize that vegetarian food is much healthier, far less environmentally taxing to produce, more universally acceptable within diverse ethnic, ethical, and religious communities.

Meanwhile, soup kitchen operators serving high-fat, high-cholesterol fare to their indigent clientele concede they fail to adequately meet the needs of homeless vegetarians. Yet changes as simple as serving pasta marinara and textured vegetable protein instead of pasta with meat sauce, or offering red beans and rice without the added pork fat, would afford soup kitchens universality in service. Veggie chili, vegetarian stew and varied vegetables are healthy, economical and filling fare, too.

Let's not kid ourselves that the moral bottom line doesn't cut across species lines. You can see it lived out when an 11-year-old girl spends the night on a sidewalk while a dot-com millionaire zips by in a $ 90,000.00 Humvee. Continued homelessness in the shadow of a thriving economy is symptomatic of a deep moral crisis. For their wonderful and practical vision of sharing healthy vegetarian food with the less fortunate, we should all wish Food Not Bombs increased success, and hope more homeless-assistance programs follow its example.


Examiner contributor Nancy Loewen, R.N., volunteers with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates a vegetarian diet.

Peter A. Brandt is a Seattle based writer.

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