The Isla Vista chapter of Food Not Bombs, a global nonprofit volunteer movement that provides free vegan and vegetarian meals to locals, upped their production to meet demands heightened over the course of the pandemic.

Food Not Bombs (FNB) serves meals in over 1,000 cities in 65 countries worldwide, and each chapter operates independently without a headquarters or official leadership. 

The Isla Vista chapter consists of roughly 25 committed volunteers but is in contact with over 100 community members for meal-making opportunities, according to Jonathan Dickstein, Food Not Bombs volunteer and doctoral candidate in the UC Santa Barbara Department of Religious Studies.

“One of the basic premises is that food is a right and not a privilege,” Dickstein said. “The idea is that everyone should be guaranteed food, housing and health care no matter who you are — young, old, drunk, sober or houseless. At the end of the day, our society should be guaranteeing the basic needs of the people.”

The chapter works alongside local businesses such as the Isla Vista Food Cooperative and various farmers market vendors to obtain produce and other food under the guidelines of the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which permits the offering of grocery products to nonprofit organizations for distribution to needy individuals. 

“The farmers who are so kind to work with us have produce that they won’t be able to sell by the next farmers market and would have to throw away,” FNB volunteer Julia Leary said. “Then we can take it and use it so it doesn’t get wasted.”

Before the pandemic, FNB hosted outdoor communal meals once or twice a week, with tables set up for community members and volunteers to eat, talk and play music together in local outdoor spaces like Little Acorn Park and People’s Park. FNB volunteer Ted Bascom explained that events usually attracted a slew of locals, including UC Santa Barbara students, houseless individuals and various community members.

“It was a great place to meet people and bring your friends to hang out,” Bascom said. “Everyone deserves to eat and we all need a space to communicate and see each other.”

These communal events came to a halt when the pandemic hit in March 2020. FNB was forced to adapt in multiple ways to the new environment, including temporarily turning away volunteers and transitioning to takeout only. 

But FNB didn’t stop serving food. They upped their services from two days a week to five after other meal organizations paused production at the beginning of the pandemic.

“It was down to about six of us who were trying to pull it together so that we wouldn’t be in contact with a lot of people,” Leary said.

To reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, volunteers opted for meal prep that could be done masked and outside without the use of their kitchen, a space granted to the organization in the Merton Co-operative. By the end of summer 2020, the group was able to resume cooking in their kitchen while abiding by COVID-19 guidelines. FNB also recently made the switch back to two communal meals a week in early July. 

“Last fall, we opened it up to more volunteers and greater protocols, like if you are going to volunteer for us then we expect you to social distance and understand that we are not only gathering, but there’s a point of contact with a lot of people who don’t have good health insurance or are very vulnerable to the virus,” Leary said. “It’s been an ongoing process to be as safe as possible.”

FNB volunteers advocated on behalf of houseless community members displaced from People’s Park as a result of the Isla Vista Recreation and Park District (IVRPD) voting to transition the area back to its recreational capacity. 

“We definitely were advocating for the encampment to stay open because everyone deserves a place to live,” Bascom said. “It is ridiculous that, as a society, we think we can decide what is best for these people and displace them on a whim.”

Dickstein acknowledged the importance in differentiating between being “houseless” and “homeless,” noting the connotations behind both. 

“Perhaps nothing sticks with me more than when Sueno Orchard was being cleared by IVRPD and one of the residents said, ‘Before I was houseless, and now I’m homeless,’” Dickstein said. “So many housed people casually say things like, ‘Home is where the heart is’ and ‘Home is with family,’ and yet they still talk about unhoused people as ‘homeless’ and needing to be moved. But unhoused people often live among friends and family and thus absolutely have ‘homes.’ They may not have houses, but they have homes.”

FNB’s role extends beyond just being a meal-service organization, functioning as a community resource and support system as well. 

“The ways in which Food Not Bombs has been involved in communities has extended beyond food,” Dickstein said. “We have very much tried to remind people that what we’re doing is not like a soup kitchen, which are these charitable organizations ‘going above and beyond.’ This isn’t charity. This is basic justice. This is basic decency.”