A Column on Human Rights
by Carol Denney
Food Not Bombs and the Southern Legal Counsel are asking the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida to strike down Fort Lauderdale’s new ordinance criminalizing food sharing in a lawsuit asking for injunctive relief and damages.
The ordinance requires “written consent” from the City to share food in any public park or public sidewalk throughout Fort Lauderdale. It obligates those who share food to meet all state, county and city requirements for food service establishments, including the provision of “restroom facilities, portable toilets or other similar facilities,” among many other requirements.
To hold their Friday gatherings in Stranahan Park, members of Food Not Bombs are required by the new ordinance to obtain a “conditional use permit” by filing an application with the planning and zoning board which is reviewed by a development review committee, followed by a 20-60 day delay until a public hearing by the planning and zoning board, which can be reviewed within 30 days by the City Commission.
This requirement would apply to each and every location where meals are served, including one-time temporary events. Groups now risk $500 fines and 60-day jail sentences unless they comply with these burdensome regulations.
“Usually zoning ordinances deal with development and private property,” said Kirsten Clanton of the Southern Legal Counsel. “This ordinance doesn’t make any distinction between public and private property and tries to regulate public space.”
Clanton notes that separate from the ordinance itself is the issue of getting consent from the City as a part of park rules which “basically ban food distribution” without providing any mechanism for obtaining city permission. “It doesn’t make any sense,” Clanton said.
Food Not Bombs’ food sharing is an intrinsic part of its political message, which states that society can “end hunger and poverty if our collective resources are redirected from the military and war.” The simplicity of Food Not Bombs’ name and mission has taken root worldwide. Its website lists over 500 chapters, suggesting that it is more likely that there are “over 1,000 chapters of Food Not Bombs active in over 60 countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.”
Food Not Bombs considers the sharing of food to be protected political expression, rather than charity, and shares vegan or vegetarian meals as part of the fundamental message of peace, unity, and opposition to war — the same message that is so clearly expressed in its name.
Fort Lauderdale argues that Food Not Bombs is an “Outdoor Food Distribution Center” under its newly revised definition and, as such, food distribution is prohibited without a permit. The new ordinance took effect October 31, 2014, but has not stopped weekly demonstrations by Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs despite police interference and arrests.
Fort Lauderdale’s ordinance states that the provision of food as a social service has “serious objectionable characteristics” and that it “may result in adverse secondary effects on adjacent properties.”
In addition, the City of Fort Lauderdale argues that “providing food on the street to homeless individuals is perpetuating homelessness.” The estimated homeless population in Florida in 2012 was nearly 55,000, just behind California and New York’s numbers. The willingness of city officials to criminalize and arrest those who share food with others in public places —including 90-year-old Arnold Abbott, a World War II veteran — has received widespread media attention.
The City of Fort Lauderdale defended its ordinance by relaxing the rules on feeding homeless people indoors in houses of worship and on private property, in an effort to steer food distribution away from public parks like Stranahan Park, a small 1.6 acres in the downtown center.
The media response to Fort Lauderdale’s crackdown has been very negative, according to Clanton, who says that statewide the efforts to criminalize homelessness are “always a response to the visibility of homelessness in public spaces.”
“It’s business interests,” she states. “It’s an effort to sanitize public space, often for tourism and tourist dollars.”
But Stranahan Park’s central location makes it “a quintessential public forum,” according to the Southern Legal Counsel’s complaint, a perfect place for Food Not Bombs to illustrate publicly their political message through their food distribution, their written materials, and the Food Not Bombs banner with the logo by co-founder Keith McHenry, a purple hand holding a bright orange carrot.
Stranahan Park underwent some physical alterations from 2012 to the present. Ornamental foliage was added to previously grassy areas, and the park now sports black metallic fencing with gates locked during the hours the park is closed, which the complaint states were “part of a concerted effort by the City to move poor and homeless people out of the park.”
Clanton says that part of the significance of Stranahan Park for Food Not Bombs is the city’s efforts to crack down on homeless people who use the park.
“Homeless people have been pushed out of that area,” she notes. “One of the ideas is reclaiming public space for the homeless and for political expression.”
Food Not Bombs protests the city’s homeless relocation effort. The complaint states that “access to public spaces is a right to be shared by all, not a privilege to be limited by the government to selected individuals.”
Fort Lauderdale insists that its approach to homelessness is progressive, including “a 230 bed homeless assistance center for short-term stays,” and a “Housing First policy,” according to the New York Times.
But the ordinance which took effect last Halloween is giving Fort Lauderdale an uncomfortable amount of negative press as another in an effort by many cities nationwide to attempt to push homelessness, meal programs and advocacy out of sight and out of mind.
Food-sharing is “inherently symbolic expression and conduct,” states the complaint. “Sharing food with another person communicates messages of intimacy, affirms social ties, and communicates group solidarity … Food is used by every human society on earth to communicate messages including the affirmation of social ties, the practice of religious beliefs, and the expression of national and ethnic identities. Food is used to reinforce messages of group solidarity and for a society to engage in ritual, ceremony, and celebration. Food has symbolic meaning because it is literally taken into the body and has associations of life, home, family, and health.”
“I think a lot of cities look at these types of ordinances as a quick and easy response to homelessness in their community, but the press coverage was overwhelmingly negative,” stated Clanton, adding that the holiday season created a peculiar backdrop for the city’s crackdown.
“Ultimately it’s an inefficient use of scarce resources. You have to think about the overwhelming amount of money they’re spending on prosecuting people.”
There’s a photograph on the Internet of a man relaxing under a tree in Stranahan Park with a sign saying, “We Won’t Stop Until the Last Belly Is Full.” The park is a good setting for such a sentiment.
Frank Stranahan, for whom the park is named, is considered the founder of Fort Lauderdale for establishing the first banking service, post office, trading post, and ferry. He traded with native populations, noting in a statement in 1917 on the conditions of the Florida Seminoles before the Committee on Investigation of the Indian Service, House of Representatives, that the Indian camp a half mile away “had plenty of corn, Indian pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and Lima beans” and were “living in no want whatever at that time.” He testified to the committee that “as fast as they clear a piece of hammock and work it two or three years, some white man comes along and takes it.”
The land grab evident to Frank Stranahan 100 years ago isn’t over in Fort Lauderdale. The nationwide struggle over people’s right to share together on public common ground is well illustrated in Fort Lauderdale’s effort to essentially handcuff the local Food Not Bombs chapter. The Southern Legal Counsel’s response on behalf of Food Not Bombs will help determine, at least in the courts, whether we can still share a bowl of soup.