Sharing food should not be a crime

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Think of "food terrorism" and what do you see? Diabolical plots to taint items on grocery-store shelves? If you are Buddy Dyer, the mayor of Orlando, Fla., you might be thinking of a group feeding the homeless and hungry in one of your city parks. That is what Dyer is widely quoted as calling the activists with the Orlando chapter of Food Not Bombs -- "food terrorists." In the past few weeks, no less than 21 people have been arrested in Orlando, the home of Disney World, for handing out free food in a park.

Food Not Bombs is an international, grass-roots organization that fights hunger. As the name implies, it is against war. Its website home page reads: "Food Not Bombs shares free vegan and vegetarian meals with the hungry in over 1,000 cities around the world to protest war, poverty and the destruction of the environment. With over a billion people going hungry each day how can we spend another dollar on war?" The Orlando chapter sets up a meal distribution table every Monday morning and Wednesday evening in the city's Lake Eola Park.

Lately, the Orlando police have been arresting those who serve food there, like Benjamin Markeson. He was perplexed, telling me: "We think that it's terrorism to arrest people for trying to share food with poor and hungry people in the community to meet a community need. And all we do is we come to the park and we share food with poor and hungry people. I don't know how that qualifies as terrorism."

Attorney Shayan Elahi doesn't know, either. He is representing Orlando Food Not Bombs in court. He has filed for an injunction against the city in the 9th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, which is presided over by Chief Judge Belvin Perry Jr., who is in the news as the no-nonsense judge in the Casey Anthony murder trial, happening now in Orlando. While the judge's courtroom receives blanket coverage on cable networks, Elahi hopes Perry will have time to personally rule on his filing.

At issue is a city law, the "Large Group Feeding" ordinance, that requires groups to obtain a permit to serve food, even for free, to groups of 25 or more. Such permits are granted to any group only twice per year. Orlando Food Not Bombs has already used both of its allowed permits this year.

The Florida Civil Rights Association has called on Mayor Dyer to apologize for his designation of the Food Not Bombs group as terrorists. The crime should not be feeding more than 25 people, but that more than 25 people need food.

Attorney Elahi links the crackdown to the planned gentrification of downtown Orlando: "The mayor started the development board for downtown Orlando, and his whole goal was basically to push everybody who ... didn't fit their idea of who should be in downtown. And we're trying to point out to the mayor that times have changed, that now everybody is hurting, and a lot more people who come to Food Not Bombs food sharing are working poor."

The core message of Food Not Bombs is embodied in a resolution passed just last week by the U.S. Conference of Mayors calling on Washington to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as soon as strategically possible and redirect funding to meet vital human needs here at home.

Central Florida has been hit very hard by the recession and is among the top locations for foreclosures and bankruptcies. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is warning that global food prices are expected to remain high for the rest of the year and beyond. Earlier this year, food prices hit levels seen during the 2007-08 food crisis that sparked unrest in poor nations worldwide. Mass protests and a general strike in Greece against planned austerity measures are shutting down Athens.

One of the most famous songs at Disney World, not far from Lake Eola Park, is called "It's a Small World." Its refrain: "There's so much that we share/ that it's time we're aware/ it's a small world after all." Let's turn fantasy into reality. Sharing food should not be a crime.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 900 stations in North America. She is the author of Breaking the Sound Barrier, recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.

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