Food Not Bombs group unhappy with Columbia park policy change; city official says ‘We’re trying to be fair’

The city of Columbia began enforcing in February an ordinance on the books since 2007. It requires that groups or individuals wanting to use a city park for events to be attended by 25 or more people to apply for a permit from the city (Columbia Code of Ordinances Section 15-2).

Food Not Bombs volunteers and guests gathered in their new location within Finlay Park for the first time Sunday (photo by Allen Wallace).

Food Not Bombs volunteers and guests gathered in their new location within Finlay Park for the first time Sunday. (photo by Allen Wallace)

One such group, Food Not Bombs, has been serving meals to those in need on Sundays at Finlay Park since 2002. While they have been issued a permit under the newly enforced rules, it has meant some changes, leaving some members unhappy and saying they’re being unfairly targeted.

Jeff Caton, director of the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department, says no particular group is being singled out. “We’re trying to be fair and ease people into the process,” he said Monday. “We want to be as transparent and helpful as possible.”

The city issued Food Not Bombs a three-month permit and did not charge a fee. The ordinance states “The applicant shall be charged fees for the use of a park or recreational facility as are approved by the city council.”

“Food Not Bombs nationally is against asking for permits, aka permission to share food, since it is connected  with free speech, right to assemble and there is no law against sharing food,” said Food Not Bombs volunteer Maris Burton. “Our group is in discussion about different ways to approach this issue.”

The group was required by the city to move from the upper portion on Finlay Park near the fountain to the southwest corner of the park near the intersection of Taylor and Gadsden streets.

“They pretty much exiled us. It smacks of people with more money trying to get us out of sight,” Food Not Bombs volunteer Ted Liszewski said.

Caton, however, said that isn’t true. He said the decision to move the group was simply to prevent them from blocking a main entrance to the park for other visitors.

“We’re trying to make accommodations,” he said, “But at the same time maintain some kind of order.”

Burton said the new spot inconvenient for access to bathrooms in addition to other problems.

“We are worried that it is a much larger space and we will not be able to keep people from leaving trash since they do not have easy access to trash cans and seating,” she said.

Liszewski said he thinks the city is “trying to make it as inconvenient for us as possible so we’ll leave.”

Caton’s response was that groups feeding those in need are not targets and that the rules now being enforced will apply to all. He said the decision to enforce the ordinance was long overdue and that the purpose is to keep the parks available and in good shape for all.

“Things have been allowed to slip by for years, but the condition of the facilities was getting to a point where we had to get a handle on it,” he said.