ORLANDO – The lines start forming right away, and remain lengthy for hours.
Every Monday morning, Donna says, the people know to turn out in front of Orlando City Hall.
“It’s usually like that, between 70 and 100 people on Monday mornings,” she said, adding that the people know where to show up, even if this is not where Donna and the other volunteers prefer to be.
But at least they didn’t have a hard time getting permission to set up in front of City Hall, she said with a laugh.
“Six cameras were on (Mayor) Buddy Dyer when he invited us downtown,” she said.
Donna is one of the activists with Orlando Food Not Bombs, a grassroots group that was doing a regular Food Sharing. The activists provide vegan food with homeless people in the city. Every Monday morning at 8 and Wednesday afternoons at 5, they assemble in front of Orlando City Hall, where the activists bring along food that includes bagels, potatoes, grits, and pancakes to feed people who have fallen on hard times.
As the group’s Web site, www.Orlandofoodnotbombs.org, notes, their mission is also intended to raise awareness of the continued problem of homelessness, poverty and hunger.
“Our group shares food because people need it and as a means of calling attention to our society’s failure to provide food and housing to each of its members,” the site notes. “We do this in public spaces, such as parks, because we believe that space should be reclaimed for the use of everyone, not just the privileged. We are an activist collective and humanitarian group that opposes the poverty, inequality, violence, war and militarism, prejudice and oppression, and environmental destruction that make groups such as ours necessary.”
On Monday morning, the volunteers had their usual table set up, where Donna joined several other members to serve the food.
“We always have grits, oatmeal, and pancakes,” she said. “Everything is Vegan.”
They spent nearly three hours handing out plates of food, to a very long line of people.
“The need is really there,” she said. “I think it’s really important. There are a lot of hungry people in Orlando.”
Food for Bombs was formed nearly a decade ago, and now has 100 volunteers, Donna said, adding that they started this effort to accomplish what local government agencies were failing to do.
“It was when the other agencies weren’t feeding them,” she said.
Overall, she said, they get a good reaction from city residents who walk by, and into, City Hall.
“A lot of people are very supportive,” she said. “We have a lot of people coming by, giving us donations and some pocket cash.”
They’re actually more supportive, she said, than the city, which has clashed with the group of activists over where the homeless could be fed.
Although the group’s mission seems altruistic, they’ve been controversial in the past when they were feeding the homeless in Lake Eola Park, a popular spot for jogges, pedestrians and families. Residents complained to City Hall that the feedings were drawing too many homeless to the park.
The city council responded by banning the activists from providing food to the homeless at Lake Eola Park, the group’s preferred location.
“We were at Lake Eola before we started getting arrested,” Donna said. “Every city in the world, the homeless are downtown. That was the perfect place for it.”
The members have been arrested for giving free food to homeless people at Lake Eola Park, because they were defying the city ordinance, passed in 2006, which mandates permits for groups distributing food to large groups in parks within two miles of City Hall.
Each group is given only two permits per park each year.
A federal court ruled the ordinance was unconstitutional in 2008, but the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision in April 2011. The appeals court justices agreed that feeding the homeless constitutes free speech, but argued that the Orlando ordinance doesn’t unreasonably infringe on the group’s rights.
Donna said they hope their current location in front of City Hall is a temporary one, and they’re still challenging the ordinance limiting their access to Lake Eola.
“We don’t have bathrooms here, which is ridiculous,” she said. There are two public rest rooms at Lake Eola Park.
In the meantime, they continue to collect donations from people who support their cause, donations that are used to buy and store the food they serve.
“I think we’re doing okay,” Donna said. “We don’t have unlimited space and cold storage, though.”
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