State health officials have threatened to seek a court order to stop a local activist with the group Food Not Bombs from serving free meals without a permit in Taos Plaza.

Keith McHenry was issued a notice of violation (PDF) Saturday (June 1) by an inspector from the New Mexico Environment Department for “serving food to the general public without a valid permit.”

The Taos resident said he was helping set up for the group’s weekly meal in the Plaza that afternoon when he was approached by two people who asked for him by name.

McHenry told The Taos News they thanked him for his work and offered an application for a permit to serve food. He said he declined the permit and was then issued the notice of violation by inspector James Jenison.

“You do not need a permit,” McHenry said in an interview Tuesday (June 4). “It is our first amendment right to be out there. We do not get money. It is like a gift.”

McHenry, who helped start the now-global Food Not Bombs movement in Massachusetts three decades ago, is familiar with the legal challenges chapters of the group have faced in other communities. McHenry was jailed for his involvement in San Francisco and Orlando.

The organization has not encountered many legal difficulties in Taos since it launched here seven years ago, he said.

McHenry recalled receiving a citation from the state five years ago but said he ignored it. “I do not get involved in permit issues,” the activist said. “If you start to apply for permits to share food then that ramps up for seeking the approval of the state for all manner of activities in daily life.”

Citing the New Mexico Food Service Sanitation Act, the notice threatened to either seek a court order to stop the group from serving food without a permit or fine McHenry up to $500 for each violation.

Bob Italiano, an official at the state Environment Department, said the inspector issued the citation due to health concerns. “The problem is that there is improper food handling going on,” Italiano said.

Also at issue is whether Food Not Bombs is covered under the state law regulating food service. New Mexico State Code 25-1-7, cited in the notice issued to McHenry, requires food service establishments attain a valid permit. Groups such as Food Not Bombs argue that, in providing food for free on a temporary basis in a public space, they are not meet the definition of a food service establishment.

McHenry said he had not heard of anyone falling ill from eating a meal provided by Food Not Bombs. The group serves food within two hours of cooking, he said; the meals do not contain meat or dairy.

He said he will continue to serve free vegan meals each week as he has done around the country for 33 years.

Andrew Oxford is a reporter for The Taos News.

(2) comments

Food Not Bombs
Food Not Bombs

Government permission to share gifts, free expression and compassion should not be required in a free country. After 33 years of sharing free vegan meals with the hungry first in Boston and now in over 1,000 cities world wide there has not been one report of illness. Food Safety and sanitation can not really be the reason we were issued a citation.

If asked I am sure New Mexico Environmental Health officials will agree that the complaint they were resounding to had nothing to to with food safety. It would be interesting to learn who complained and why since we have been welcomed by the Plaza merchants and have provided food for the community almost every Saturday for over seven years with a number of shop owners contributing food from their restaurants and others enjoying our free organic meals. The inspector did not inspect the food and had to cross out the word "sell" and write "serve" above it because just is the case in every state it is not necessary to have a permit to give away free things to your neighbor.

It is important to defend the right to share food and ideas particularly now. The need to build support for food and seek reduce military spending could not be needed more.

A week before the citation Food Not Bombs groups from Asia, the Americas, Europe and Australia reported that they had provided meals at their local March Against Monsanto protests. Taos Food Not Bombs initiated our local march from the farmers market to our weekly GMO free meal at the Plaza. Monsanto's control of seeds and their ban on seed saving is a leading cause of world hunger. At the same time it was reported that Congress would remove millions from access to food stamps.

In a report also published the same week as the state was issuing a citation against Food Not Bombs the U.S. census claiming that "in 2010, 46.9 million people were in poverty, up from 37.3 million in 2007 -- the fourth consecutive annual increase in the number of people in poverty .  This is the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty rates have been published" They also reported that "In 2010, 17.2 million households, 14.5 percent of households (approximately one in seven), were food insecure, the highest number ever recorded in the United States."

Mean while America's hungriest state New Mexico is also home to the world's largest stock pile of nuclear weapons. At the same time we are struggling to feed our people the Federal government is fund the design and production of their new Reliable Nuclear Arsenal at Los Alamos. If that were not bad enough Cannon Air Base flies million dollar drones over our state and is considering using Taos County as a practice area for the use of the MV-22 Osprey in future invasions. We already see this monstrous over budget weapons system flying down the Rio Grande Gorge. We also learned that every phone in Taos is being monitored by our government as are every web visit, email and other electronic communication. How is our money being used for the new command center? is this really just for 911 emergency calls?

Taos was not the only place where the authorities confronted Food Not Bombs this June. Officials in Seattle, Washington and Gainesville Florida also interfered with the efforts of Food Not Bombs. After the occupy movement was driven from the streets Philadelphia, Houston and nearly 50 other cities proposed banning or limiting the sharing of food in public.

After spending years seeking a permit to share food and literature at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco followed by attempts in a couple of other cities we realized that there was no legal grounds for the state to require us to seek permission. It became clear that the authorities had no intention of issuing us a permit because our message Food Not Bombs was considered a threat. We were placed on a Terrorist list in the fall of 1988. Yes 1988 well before the 9/11 attack. As we came to discover in a U.S. State Department lecture aired several times on C-Span in 2009 federal officials considered us more dangerous than Al-Qaeda because our meals and message were inspiring the public to consider that we may be more secure if the money spent on the military was redirected to social needs like education and healthcare.

The complaint could be innocent made by the owners of a new food cart in the plaza or it could be part of a larger pattern that we are experiencing across the United States. Either way if we let the state require permits for the sharing of free items and ideas we will soon be required to have permission to help people with flat tires or their math homework. I hope to see you this Saturday from noon to 2:00 PM at the Taos Plaza.

Keith McHenry


I always get a kick out of anarchists waving the Constitution. Dude, you can hand out your literature. You can proselytize to the hippies and you are fully within your rights. Once you set up a kitchen on public spaces, you run smack dab into the 10th amendment which gives the states the power to regulate things like food service to the public.

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