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SHARING FOOD — One of Harry Bergbauer’s Stone Soup gatherings at the Occupy Bench in Sebastopol’s downtown plaza.

Everyone remembers the story of how hungry soldiers made a soup from stones by persuading people in a village to just give a little of what they had to flavor the stones. Everyone got fed. That story inspired Sebastopol resident Harry Bergbauer to form what he calls The Circle of Gratitude and Stone Soup.

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Harry Bergbauer

In April, for his youngest son Joshua’s birthday, he decided to go to the Sebastopol plaza with some pressure cooker pots and make soup for anyone who showed up. His teenaged son was pleased at sharing a birthday feast. Bergbauer said, “Homeless people living in their cars and homeful people with gardens all came to contribute to the vegan soup. Everyone enjoyed it.”

Bergbauer is used to sharing. He lives in an intentional community called Two Acre Wood where 14 households share responsibilities and assets. It is now into its second generation as many of the original residents’ children have come back to continue it.

Bergbauer was so pleased that the communal feast had brought people together, he decided to repeat the Stone Soup experiment every Tuesday. Throughout the summer between two and three dozen, people have regularly showed up to help with cooking, cleaning up and to eat the nourishing soup. About half of them are homeless car and RV dwellers who treasured the opportunity to connect with the community. Others were local residents who just liked sharing a meal and vegetables from their gardens.

At the beginning of September, a local merchant lodged a complaint that Bergbauer didn’t have an event permit. A police officer came as the group was cooking and told them they had to stop.

“So, we moved the feast to my house to cook and when it was ready, brought it back to the plaza to eat it. The officer said a potluck picnic was perfectly fine without a permit.”

Bergbauer wrote to the city government inquiring about a permit and was sent the following ordinance:

12.44.020 Special events defined.

One-time-only or annual special events including, but not limited to, circuses, fairs, carnivals, parades, marathon walks or runs, motion picture or television location filming and such may be permitted by the city at all city parks and facilities subject to these regulations. All provisions of this chapter are subject to the approval/waiver of the City Manager or his/her designee. The Sebastopol Municipal Code is current through Ordinance 1123, passed May 7, 2019.

Bergbauer said he is working with Sebastopol City Councilmember Una Glass and the county health department, both of whom want to help him in his effort to do a very Sebastopol thing — share a communal meal. 

“The city is looking into an expedited permit to allow Bergbauer to continue his good work,” Glass said. She applauds his community spirit.

It turns out that,legally, Bergbauer may not need a permit at all. In August 2018, a Federal Appeals Court overturned a lower court decision that said the city of Fort Lauderdale could regulate Food Not Bombs or close them down in their efforts to feed the homeless.

Judge John Steele said in his ruling, “Food shared with company differs greatly from a meal eaten alone.” Steele’s ruling goes to point out that the food sharing was a form of expression and therefore protected under the First Amendment.

“Food sharing in a visible public space … is meant to convey that all persons are equal, regardless of socio-economic status, and that everyone should have access to food as a human right,” the ruling reads.

Bergbauer said, “It’s a constitutional right to share food without money being involved.”

Glass said she was not aware of the ruling, “But it makes sense.”

In the meantime, Bergbauer said people have begun coming to his home on Mondays to help make the soup which he brings to the plaza on Tuesdays between 4 and 6 p.m.

“No more police have come by,” he said.

Bergbauer has been picking up the tab for many of the ingredients of his curry, coconut veggie soup but appreciates any help he can get.

Originally he bought a bunch of bowls and would take them home after the gathering and wash them, but now, as the group has grown, he asks people to “BYOBs – bring your own bowl, and a spoon.”

All are welcome.

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