Can Collector

News & Politics

ca poster
Art for food: this poster can be yours for 10 cans of food.

"If I give food to the hungry, they call me a saint," Brazilian Bishop Dom Helder Camera once famously quipped. "But if I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist." Colorado-based food gatherer Justin Baker will tell you he isn't really interested in being either one. Rather, the 24-year-old honcho of Conscious Alliance is more into swapping one kind of hunger for another -- the appetite for music and art, and the desperate craving for, well, food. But the carte du jour of this non-profit is definitely more Chef Boyardee than escargot.

For the past two years Baker and other former students from the University of Colorado have been using a particularly different approach to the standard canned food drive. Working with rock bands and festival promoters nationwide, Conscious Alliance trades concert-goers original rock art posters for foodstuffs which Baker then distributes to the Indian reservations that constitute some of America's most poverty-stricken counties. "This is emergency food as we see it," Baker says. "There is so much aid that we send out of the country when there is so much needed right here at home . . . People in Boulder [Colorado] don't realize that six hours away [in Pine Ridge, South Dakota] is a straight-up third world country."

Baker has spent nearly half his young life devising creative ways to feed hungry people. At 15 he started up a Food Not Bombs chapter in his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut that to this day is still run by his younger brother. Six years ago, when Baker came to CU as a freshman, he found himself ditching the dorms and riding the bus up to the outskirts of the city so he could volunteer with the cooks at the Boulder Homeless Shelter. He soon started up an early premonition of the local chapter of Food Not Bombs. In the tradition of the group's punk collectivist philosophy, he would often have to fly below the radar to "Jedi" the ingredients needed for his weekly community meal servings, but he found himself drifting away from the anarchist group's radical leanings. "I was about the feeding and not the politics of it," he says.

After taking a class with Indian rights activist and CU Professor Ward Churchill, Baker and a few friends began making regular trips to bring food to reservations in Arizona and New Mexico. It was the historically scarred Pine Ridge that made the deepest impact on him.

justin baker and floyd hand
Justin Baker and Floyd Hand

"It is poverty that I'd only seen in infomercials," Baker says. "You go into a house and there's like six kids and they are sleeping on a floor with like standing water and trash everywhere." Rampant alcoholism and unemployment, horrendous housing, and internal strife within the tribal community had left hundreds of families completely cut off from the support grid, says Baker. The religious studies major also felt a deep connection with Native American spirituality and had formed a bond with Floyd Hand, a medicine man and tribal elder on the reservation.

After two years of securing small donations and making food-runs to the reservation, Baker, who had done an internship with the Boulder-based tour band The String Cheese Incident, organized a canned food drive at one of the band's Fillmore Auditorium dates in 2002. By telling fans that they'd be able to get a free String Cheese Incident poster by bringing in 10 cans, Baker pulled in over 4,000 pounds of food. He graduated from college that May and immediately began staging more food drives at other hippie-type rock shows.

The biggest breakthrough occurred when artist Michael Everett, who had created concert posters for the Grateful Dead, began donating specialized artwork for Baker to barter for cans. "[Everett's] artwork is so popular," Baker says of tapping into the collector's world of rock art. "We would get 200 people or more over a weekend each bringing in 10 cans and it just adds up really quick. Some people would bring 30 cans for three posters."

Soon Baker was loading up 14-foot trucks to the roof with cans of everything from black beans to clam chowder. That's when he says he realized the potential of Conscious Alliance to fill a whole lot of empty stomachs. Since receiving formal non-profit status last year, Baker and his Development Director Glen Lovet have become something like food-drive rock stars. Going on tours with bands like Sound Tribe Sector 9 and setting up shop at dozens of festivals and sporting events nationwide, his group has collected over 20,000 pounds of cans which will go to small food banks in inner cities as well as numerous reservations, where he hopes to build a number of food storage facilities. He has also become a kind of a rock art curator with several artists clamoring to donate work for future posters.

Cans don't pay for the thousands of dollars in printing, travel and gasoline costs however, and in that vein it's a good thing that jam band fans are not exactly the most, shall we say, responsible of people. "People who forget their cans will buy the posters for ten bucks," Baker says with the smile of a saint and a drive of a Marxist, "Thank God for that."

For more information on Conscious Alliance, check out

Jared Jacang Maher, 24, is a freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado.

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