By JACKIE HONG
Jon Stepanian’s a busy guy.
He’s been up since 6 a.m. driving around Long Island, New York, picking up and logging food donations and then helping to distribute them. And he’s not even done yet – he’s due for another round of pickups after our Skype session and has to get up at 6 a.m. again tomorrow to cook for about five hours.
Stepanian, 30, is one of the co-founders of Long Island’s chapter of Food Not Bombs (FNB), a volunteer-driven collective that gathers donated food and shares it with people in need. He works 7 days a week and puts in 70 to 80 hours of that week towards the chapter.
“[Our] goal is to take an area like Long Island and try to completely eliminate the need for food, to completely eliminate hunger,” Stepanian said.
He started Long Island FNB with a group of friends in June of 2006. Their first donor was a Trader Joe’s that gave them a bag full of bread. Since then, they’ve created a non-profit called Community Solidarity to help get bulk donations (bigger stores often require them to go through corporate management). So far, they have built up a network of around 300 donors including chain supermarkets like Whole Foods, local farmers and Cornell University’s college of agriculture.
Long Island, with a population of 7.5 million, has close to 65,000 people who depend on emergency food assistance every week from organizations like Island Harvest and Long Island Cares. Over 129,000 Long Island residents who may qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (which used to be the food stamps program) don’t receive the benefits.
Long Island FNB operates on a bit of a smaller scale: it shares a week’s supply of groceries with about 4,500 people a week and feeds 7,000 with hot meals. FNB works quite differently than other food assistance groups. FNB has chapters worldwide, and although they have little day-to-day interaction, they are united by three philosophies: food is a human right, not a privilege; promote peace through sharing food; and everything is accomplished through consensus-based decision making. It’s a hands-on approach that, besides feeding the hungry, tries to break down social stigmas.
“It’s not the people in the non-profit that tell the community what to do, it’s the community that tells us what to do and what they want to see.” Stepanian said.
“We really try to blur these lines between who’s a volunteer and who’s somebody who is receiving food. We consider all these people as part of our community.”
Stepanian, a New York native, had his first brush with FNB in 2002. During his first year as a history and political science student at Fordham University, he jumped on a bus to Washington, D.C. for the World Economic Forum protest. He was arrested 10 minutes into a demonstration, held for three days and had no idea what to do when he was released.
“As I’m leaving the prison, there’s a table outside and it says ‘Food Not Bombs.’ And it’s these kids and they’re sharing some oatmeal … They lent me a cell phone, they helped me to find the people I came down there with, I ended up getting a ride back to New York, so it all kind of really worked out,” he recalled.
Long Island FNB currently runs five food shares every week in different areas: Hempstead, Coram, Huntington, Farmingville and Bedstuy. It depends on a huge network of volunteers – anywhere from 3,500 to 4,000 a month who help with coordination, donation pick-ups, cooking and distribution. The food shares are always held outside in public spaces – this helps make the issue of hunger visible and takes away the shame in getting food. Food shares last about two hours with volunteers wearing colour-coded necklaces (representing different food groups) handing out groceries and unloading donations – 60 to 70 per cent of which are fresh organic produce, all of which are vegetarian. After the groceries are handed out, hot vegan meals are served.
The food shares also serve as a place for the community to talk about politics and community issues.
“If you look at our community, it represents people from every religious group, every political leaning, racial or ethnic background. We have Tea Party people along with the anarchists sharing food. And that’s kind of the idea, getting everyone together with food and building up the community together with that.”
It’s not without problems though. Volunteers have been arrested, threatened with lawsuits and faced multiple health department violations. The Ku Klux Klan protested the first Farmingville food share and still protest every Thanksgiving. It is not just FNB dealing with the backlash; food donors have pulled their support after receiving threats in the past.
Human elements aren’t the only obstacle. Long Island FNB has a mandate to never miss a food share, which means putting up with whatever weather Mother Nature throws its way. Volunteers have braved storms, including Hurricane Sandy, and have had to shovel multiple feet of snow during the winter to keep the initiative going.
“I mean, there’s a lot of bullshit, don’t get me wrong,” Stepanian admitted, “but it’s also kind of an incredible feeling to go and see that you’re able to get tens of thousands of pounds of food on a daily basis and give it to people who really are thankful and need it.”
According to Stepanian, everyone’s efforts are paying off. The amount of food donated to the chapter almost doubles every year, and over the years, he’s seen communities gradually building themselves up.
“My hope is to kind of make this into an example that others can follow,” he said. “The idea is for people to look at us and say, ‘Okay, these guys in Long Island are doing this with very little resources. Why can’t we do it in L.A.? Why can’t we do it in San Francisco or Portland?”