Since May 2004, a group of IU students has collected food that would otherwise have been thrown away and turned it into meals that they share for free with anyone interested.

Part of the national Food Not Bombs ( FNB ) movement, the Bloomington group serves from 1 to 3 p.m. Sundays at Trinity Episcopalian Church during the winter months. In warmer weather, the cooks share their food in People's Park.

Steve Lane and Jayme Jenkins are two members of the loose-knit group of young people who produce what Jenkins calls a community potluck. "It's not just about feeding the hungry," Jenkins said recently over tea at Soma. "It's all about slowing urban waste." She said most of the FNB materials are "dumpstered" — retrieved — from the overflowing waste bins in the community. "A lot of the veggies we've dumpstered are in better condition than the food we buy!" she exclaimed.

Lane sees their efforts as part of community-building. "Basically, we just wanted to feed people," he said. "To do something without asking for something in return."

"A lot of the reasons for FNB are largely symbolic rather than functional because we don't feed a lot of hungry people," Jenkins explained. But the effort of collecting materials and then preparing them in a meal to share with strangers has benefits far beyond a full stomach. "Mutual aid is very important," Jenkins said. "Everyone should be helping each other out."

Such actions develop empathy, she said. "You have to be empathetic to be an activist." She caught herself using the word "activist" and tried to say it another way. "It's just part of being a member of the community."

Lane said FNB members chose Sunday for their project because other community food services take the day off. While attendance is not huge — 8 to 30 people show up a typical Sunday "feed" — the real attraction is conviviality. FNB members like to mingle and chat with whoever shows up.

"We like to take the stress off and have regular conversations," Lane said. The point is not to convert or recruit (most FNB members are at least vegetarian and some are vegan) but to interact with people and share stories.

Jenkins said they make no secret about the source of the food. "We eat this food with them and don't try to hide where we got it." It's all part of educating people about our wasteful society as well as getting a feel for the community. "You have to be the effect you want to see in the world," she said, sounding for all the world like an activist.

"Since we're students, it took us a while to get accepted by the business community," Lane said. That has changed over time. Recently, the group reached an agreement with Roots Restaurant on the Square, which donates foodstuffs. Other restaurants are more willing to help as they find out about FNB.

"We get financial donations, too, so we can buy cooking oil," Lane said. All members of the group handle food prep and cleanup in a kitchen loaned by a friend. "Everybody works together — guys next to girls — cooking a meal," Lane said. "Working together is a matter of style, not gender," Jenkins chimed in. She said there are more males than females involved in the group, so it turns out the guys do more cleanup. She said the "very transient affinity group" numbers 8 to 10 people.

FNB takes a low-key approach to its efforts: a few flyers taped up around town; word of mouth on the street; and a Listserv. Lane smiled as he recalled an incident last year that marked a turning point.

"Somebody ripped down our sign at People's Park and members of the community helped repair the sign and reposted it. Several of the chess players helped. That's when we knew we were accepted."

Thomas P. Healy is a journalist in Indianapolis.

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