Mike McLean knows many of the people who have died in the streets of Jersey City by name: Keith. Steve. Greg. Dustin.
Most recently, it was Moms, the matriarch of the homeless community in Jersey City, who passed away after a long battle with addiction. McLean helped plan her memorial service in Journal Square last May, where there was a reverend, flowers and a musical tribute.
Ever since 2015, McLean has been a leader of the Jersey City chapter of Food Not Bombs, a movement that gathers in Journal Square once a week to share food with the homeless community.
For him, it’s about more than just serving meals— it’s about creating a space where “peace, sharing and recognizing people’s human dignity is paramount.”
“Often, homelessness is just as much a personal and spiritual poverty as a material poverty,” McLean said. “[Homeless people] have been pushed to the periphery so much— more than a coat or socks, they need friends.”
For this reason, he says, Food Not Bombs is less about charity and more about solidarity.
“Building relationships is so important,” said Nicole Campos, a Saint Peter’s University freshman who has volunteered with Food Not Bombs through her sociology class. “When people open up to you, you are able to help them better.”
Regular volunteers do more than simply know the people they serve by name. They have also accompanied their homeless friends while moving into new apartments and through health emergencies. Sometimes, their homeless friends will roll up their sleeves, put on some gloves, and help serve the food alongside them.
“Developing a relationship with someone in need— and helping them self-actualize— is an enormous victory,” McLean said. “It’s tipping the balance of power in a small way, but on a very deep plain.”
The work done by Food Not Bombs doesn’t just benefit the people being served— it also benefits the people serving.
“Building fellowship with even one person can help dismantle our preconceptions and prejudices about homeless people,” said Dominick Mastrodonato, a Saint Peter’s University junior who has volunteered with Food Not Bombs in the past.
Aeshwari Tillack, a freshman who has also volunteered with the movement, believes that her experience sharing food with people opened her eyes.
“We were giving out hygiene products, and there was one woman there who was so excited when she got extra soap,” Tillack said. “That made me think a lot about the fact that we lead a more privileged life than them.”
Unlike many organizations that feed the homeless, Food Not Bombs aims not only to nourish people, but to draw attention to the structural issues that make homelessness an epidemic.
Throughout the movement’s history, its volunteers have been outspoken critics of wealth inequality and militarization, which they believe are inextricably linked to the homelessness crisis in America.
According to Mastrodonato, both war and homelessness are evidence of a society that “willfully disposes of people” and doesn’t value human life.
“War is destruction,” Mastrodonato said. “When people are isolated due to homelessness, that is also destruction— of their own physical or emotional shelter.”
The movement’s anti-war ethos dates back to its very conception. In 1980, a group of activists from Cambridge, Massachusetts founded Food Not Bombs as part of a protest against a nuclear power plant.
In order to get their message across, they publically set up a depression-era soup kitchen.
“Food Not Bombs does things publically for a reason,” McLean explained. “We take up public space, so that people can see there’s a huge problem with homelessness— and yet there’s all of this money that’s being given to war.”
Since their first public food-sharing event, the movement has spread worldwide. Today, there are chapters of Food Not Bombs in the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia.
“The truth is that a plate of food, once a week, is not gonna solve homelessness in Jersey City,” said McLean. “But the consistent relationship building will have an impact on people’s self-esteem and sense of human dignity.”
If you are interested in volunteering with Food Not Bombs, they meet every Sunday in Journal Square by the fountain at noon.
“Interacting face-to-face is one of the best ways to build community,” Mastrodonato said. “By simply leaving campus and heading to Journal Square, you’re already halfway there.”