Is Houston’s mayor playing chess with grassroots activists?

Photo by Burnell McCray

Report by Nick Cooper – Food Not Bombs recently received permission to share food in the downtown library plaza, though we never asked for it. Since everyone has the freedom to share food and messages of peace with their neighbors in public, requesting permission would have been redundant.

We sincerely thank the Mayor for her apparent acknowledgment that Food Not Bombs is a part of the solution to the problem of hunger in Houston. However, exempting Food Not Bombs also serves to reinforce the idea that the right to share food in public should be at the whim of whoever happens to be sitting in the Mayor’s office. The punitive nature of the law is the underlying problem, and granting exemptions doesn’t mitigate its chilling effect on volunteerism. The threat of harassment and $2,000 fines has caused volunteers to drop out, and the number of desperately hungry people coming to Food Not Bombs to double.

In addition to serving at the library, volunteers who participate in Food Not Bombs, like many other Houstonians, drive around the city distributing food and water to people in need wherever they may be found. This important and compassionate act remains criminalized. Granting Food Not Bombs permission to serve in a single location cannot and will not remedy this manufactured hunger crisis in the streets of Houston.
Occupy Houston report: There has been a nationwide crackdown on grassroots efforts to feed the homeless. Houston proponents of the recent public feeding restrictions say it is to protect property rights, bring in needed tourist revenue, address health issues in regards to unregulated food preparation and coordinate services for the homeless more efficiently. Opponents cite favoritism to developers, co-opting public space, shuttling the homeless out-of-sight, restricting expressions of religion such as helping those in need, and suppressing attempts of the Occupy Movement to reoccupy encampments.
Houston mayor Annise Parker initiated this highly unpopular anti-public feeding ordinance. The law went into effect on July 1, 2012. A diverse coalition of Houston groups and individuals have been working together to overturn this restrictive ordinance since it was first announced in March of this year. The coalition’s specific objection to the ordinance is the prohibition of sharing food with more than 5 people in need in public space without the City’s prior approval and then only in designated areas. Since March of 2012, grassroots advocates for the homeless have repeatedly spoken before City Council and gathered 34,000 signatures to get Food Sharing before the voters by the Nov. 2012 elections. Houston City Council rejected the petitions citing a deadline. For more information on the City of Houston’s feeding ordinance see Houston Keep Food Sharing Free fb,  Free to Give Houston and Occupy Houston web and fb.