In March 2009, a city developer informed the Gainesville, Florida city Plan Board about an 18 year old ordinance that was regularly violated. The ordinance, located here in city code, limited soup kitchens to serving up to 130 meals within a 24 hour period. The Plan Board listened to the developer and voted for stricter enforcement of the limit. After two years of protests and activism, the 130 meal limit will now be replaced with a new policy that allows soup kitchens to serve as many people as they can within a three hour period each day.
Due to exemptions in the original ordinance for churches and the Salvation Army, St. Francis House was the city’s only soup kitchen affected by the limit. Commissioner Jeanna Mastrodisca had stated that the limit was in place to keep soup kitchen patrons from being concentrated in the downtown area where many receive meals from the St. Francis House, saying “What we’re trying to do is spread [patrons] out. […] That’s our goal.” City Spokesman Bob Woods said in 2009 that Gainesville is currently developing a “one-stop” homeless center that will provide food, shelter, and services. Woods also said that Churches can hand out up to 20 meals without a permit.
But with the center still yet to break ground in August 2011, the hungry have limited options in Gainesville: according to the Coalition to End the Meal Limit NOW!, “the St. Francis House, in order to keep its license to operate, has had to turn away anyone after number 130 in line to be fed, despite lines approaching 300 people.” The meal limit was featured in the National Coalition for the Homeless’ (NCH) 2010 report on food sharing prohibitions and also helped garner Gainesville the fifth spot on NCH’s 2009 Ten Meanest Cities.
People began protesting the meal limit by picketing city hall and demanding that it be overturned in the summer of 2009. A petition to lift the limit on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and another holiday of St. Francis’ choosing quickly reached the city Plan Board later that year, and the unelected group of Gainesville residents recommended that the City Commission investigate overturning the limit all together. The Plan Board unanimously reaffirmed its position in 2011.
As the amount of time that the meal limit was enforced increased, so did its opposition. On December 1, 2010, the Coalition to End the Meal Limit NOW!formed with the mission of ending the need for their organization to exist as soon as possible.
The Coalition brought together a number of people and groups, including Food Not Bombs, Veterans for Peace, and the International Socialist Organization, acting as an umbrella to coordinate protests of the meal limit.
By August 2011, the Coalition had grown immensely. According to Sean Larson, the Coalition Convener, “we currently have 18 member organizations, with many of those sending regular delegates to our bi-weekly meetings. […] We [also] have had over 700 local residents sign the Coalition’s petition, and almost 15,000 supporters sign an online petition at Change.org.”
The petitions have brought attention to the issue, but not nearly as much as the Coalition’s pickets and protests. Larson says that their presence at city hall and downtown has drawn local, national, and even international attention to the meal limit, putting considerable pressure on the City Commission. According to Larson, their campaign gained even more momentum following a revelation that it was only a select group of land developers who pushed for the limit, allowing the Coalition to single out those responsible and hold boycotts and pickets. In October 2010, Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe still defended the meal limit, saying that it was the best way to keep the downtown community safe until an alternative could be found. But less than a year later, on July 27, 2011, Lowe announced his support of ending the limit, endorsing a plan that allows soup kitchens to serve an unlimited amount of people within a three hour window each day.
Larson says that the Coalition’s protesting is what truly made a difference: “[Mayor Lowe’s] indefensible support of the meal limit became unsustainable in the face of the mounting pressure engendered by the Coalition’s public actions, which generated a large public outcry against the mayor in particular. He changed his position because he had to.” On August 18, 2011, a repeal of the 130 meal limit won its first City Commission vote, and in its place will likely be the “three hour window” plan that Lowe eventually backed.
*This marks the last post by our Civil Rights Summer Intern Daniel Honeycutt. Thank you Dan (and all of our summer interns) for your great work this summer!