Every other Friday evening, Sammy K. bikes along Bloor Street before turning north into an alley just west of Bathurst. It is usually empty but for the distant laughter of the neighbouring bar crowd. Tonight, he is joined by four of his friends. There is a scrawny-looking kid with a backpack. Bike-chain grease lines another pair of legs. Tribal tattoos abound.
They have not come down this darkened path to deal drugs or damage property. They are here to dumpster dive.
Part of a global network, the Toronto chapter of Food Not Bombs is a lose collective of primarily college-aged kids who meet every other Friday to rescue food from the city's trash bins. They reunite the following Sunday to cook the produce they've retrieved, which is then shared with the homeless in Allan Gardens, the oldest park in Toronto. (Due to the legally ambiguous nature of the activity, Sammy K. requested his full name not be published.)
In recent weeks, FNB kitchens – there are over 1,000 chapters around the world, with posts in all major Canadian cities – have been enjoying a renaissance of sorts, providing food support at Occupy events on Wall Street, at Boston's Dewey Square, McPherson Square in Washington, and the Federal Reserve in Chicago. Speaking from Philadelphia, where he is helping out with Occupy Philly, Keith McHenry, the founder of FNB, estimates that FNB chapters have been feeding 500 to 600 people per meal every day for the past few weeks.
When the Occupy Toronto Market Exchange gets under way Saturday in the financial district, the Toronto faction of FNB will be stepping up to provide food support for the thousands of people expected to attend the protest. Antonin Mongeau, the de facto head of the OTME food team, plans to "serve a thousand meals right from the first day, starting Saturday at 10 a.m." To do so, he plans to draw upon FNB's "expertise in feeding groups for free." Over 90 per cent of the food items on OTME's wish list have been donated, but they will need to dumpster-dive to keep the supply stockpiled should the event continue past the weekend. They will also need an offsite kitchen, something FNB members are currently on the hunt for.
FNB is no stranger to the strategy of occupation. The Ukrainian chapter held a 100-day occupation in Kiev in protest of the stolen election during the 2004 Orange Revolution. There was also the two-year nonviolent action in Bosnia and Herzegovina Square organized by the Sarajevo chapter in 2005.
Until now, the Toronto FNB's struggles have paled in comparison to those of their international counterparts, as they deal with operational issues ranging from city health regulations to angry shopkeepers who fear the dumpster divers will frighten off potential customers.
Jim Chan, manager of the food safety program at Toronto Public Health, confirmed that serving food collected from dumpsters would not be in compliance with Section 11 of the Ontario Health Protection and Promotion Act.
"The health risks associated with dumpster diving outweigh the benefits because there's no guarantees with what's put in a dumpster," he wrote in an e-mail.
Still, the Toronto chapter sees benefits in its ongoing work, regardless of its apparent breach of provincial health protocol.
"There is a family who just had a baby who comes [to Allan Gardens] every time," said Sammy K., co-founder of FNB Toronto, along with his roommate, Jay Wydra. "They are obviously recovering from drug addiction, and when people don't judge them for five minutes to break bread, it's good for them."
"[FNB is] about building a real community instead of the monotony of automaton living. We're trying to build relationships with these people," he says of the 30 or so people they regularly feed on a bi-weekly basis. Sometimes, the crowd swells to over 60, and they serve until they run out of food.
"We're offering a way out of capitalism. We want to create a community of alternatives."
The Toronto chapter of FNB will face its biggest challenge this Saturday. It will be the closest its members have come to being part of the "community of alternatives" they so crave. Whether or not the consensus model used at other Occupy events will work when 50 volunteers and over 1,000 protesters are involved in choosing risotto or rice remains to be seen, but when protesters queue up for a bite to eat this weekend at least part of their meal will likely be coming from the city's dumpsters, a fact some citizens might consider a bit unsavoury.
Then again, "There's nothing radical about it," says Mr. Wydra. "It's just people cooking food and people eating food."