Clock Tower
On Thursday, the city of Santa Cruz sent a cease and desist letter to the food distribution group Food Not Bombs: “There are serious safety issues at work here.”
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
City Life

‘A shift in what will be tolerated’: It’s a Clock Tower standoff between city, Food Not Bombs over permits

Organization leader Keith McHenry says ‘We don’t need to seek permission from a city that refuses to make sure its residents are fed’ while a city spokesperson says the group must ‘operate under the rules and regulations and guidelines that any other organization within the city would be required to do.’

The What:

On Thursday, the Santa Cruz City Attorney’s office sent a cease and desist letter to Food Not Bombs, a food distribution organization that’s held pop-up meal services for those in need locally for years — but, for at least the last 23 months, without permits.

The So What:

This isn’t the first time the organization, led by Keith McHenry, has had to address concerns from the city of Santa Cruz.

Earlier this year, the group moved from the city-leased Lot 27 at Laurel and Front streets — where they had been serving food on-and-off since the start of the pandemic — due to an underground water-line construction project. They then set up a few blocks away nearby on Lot 22, near University Copy, before moving to the city park at Town Clock on Jan. 26.

According to city officials, the operation has taken up the majority of the area surrounding the Town Clock since it began its operations, leading to congestion for both pedestrians and traffic.

City officials said the group has had permits in the past, but hasn’t had them for the last several years, with the group only recently obtaining a permit from the County Department of Environmental Health for food preparation. City spokesperson Elizabeth Smith said that while the city allowed Food Not Bombs to operate at Laurel and Front because of the services it provides, the city has now changed its plans.

Food Not Bombs van
Food Not Bombs has been serving daily meals from the Town Clock since Jan. 26 this year, but city officials say the group doesn’t have the mandatory permits to serve food.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“The city is going to expect that Food Not Bombs operate under the rules and regulations and guidelines that any other organization within the city would be required to do,” she said.

For instance, she said, other community groups that feed the needy — like Saint Francis Soup Kitchen and Grey Bears — do so from their own facilities and are already permitted to do so.

“There is a shift in what will be tolerated within the city, as it relates to permitting and lack of permitting and operations on public property,” Smith said. “What you’ll see, I think, as we go forward is more management of that situation than in the past.”

McHenry was combative in his response.

“We’ve never missed a meal any day, since March 14, 2020,” he said, referencing the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We don’t need to seek permission from a city that refuses to make sure its residents are fed.”


Co-founded by McHenry in 1980, Food Not Bombs is a loose-knit group of independent collectives nationwide, providing free vegan and vegetarian food to the hungry. McHenry has said the team serves between 150 to 200 hot meals per day, seven days per week.

But according to the letter from Deputy City Attorney Cassie Bronson, the organization does not have two required permits:

  • A Limited Service Charitable Feeding Operation Permit with the county
  • A Public Gathering and Expression Event Permit from the city

When asked about this, McHenry responded: “We have a global policy against accepting and receiving permits from governments.”

He did not respond to questions about how such a stance inevitably leads to such conflicts, as the current one, with government officials. He also did not explain how it squares with city statements that Food Not Bombs did, in fact, have permits at one point — and currently has one with the county.

Smith said McHenry and city officials were in talks for a permit to serve food at San Lorenzo Park in February 2020, but that he withdrew the request.

Currently, Smith said, the organization has a permit from the county’s Department of Environmental Health for food preparation — which it does in the kitchen of the Calvary Church downtown — but has refused to take the steps to get the additional required two permits.

“We’re asking Keith to abide by the rules that any other organization in the city would abide by,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that he’s expressed that he’s not willing to participate in the [free] permitting process…the purpose of the permitting process is to make sure that health and safety are upheld for not only the people participating in any events held on city property, but also for the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Other organizations that serve food and follow the rules:

According to Smith, City Manager Matt Huffaker has been in discussions this week with the Santa Cruz County branch of Second Harvest — and other food distribution agencies that are willing to pull the necessary permits — to talk about ramping up their contributions within the city.

“We want to make sure that, if Food Not Bombs doesn’t get its appropriate permits, that there are organizations and resources for folks to fill to fill that space,” Smith said. “We’re not at the point of a program yet.”

What’s Next:

McHenry said he has no plans to move, with his goal to continue to feed people every day from the current location at the Clock Tower.

“There’s no way that a government has any right to control the people who are actually providing the resources needed to keep the community together,” he said.

While San Lorenzo Park has been offered as a location previously, McHenry has no interest in serving the daily meal from the Benchlands: “Our purpose is to communicate with the general public and put a human face on the unhoused.”

Smith is unsure of the next steps, but said that, if the group does not respond to the city’s letter within a week with a clear intent to obtain permits, they will likely be given a second notice to vacate.