Photo by Yurko Dyachyshyn

Medyka, a small Polish village on the southern border with Ukraine, became one of the main hubs for refugees almost overnight in late February.

Here, after a long and exhausting wait at the checkpoint, Ukrainians fleeing from the Russian invasion can find medical assistance, clothes, toys for children and food. At the station, a train is waiting to take them to other cities in Poland or the rest of Europe. Other trains arrive from Ukraine, transporting sick children to Polish hospitals.

In a shed nearby, a group of volunteers cooks and distributes 2,500 hot meals every day. The kitchen is operated by Food for All, a food relief charity based in Garston, a village in the United Kingdom about 20 miles from London. “Our job is to cook meals for refugees as they queue to get onto the train so they can eat on their journey to wherever they’re going,” said Food for All Director Peter O’Grady. “Sometimes they’re so eager to take their seat that they forget to grab their pack, so we serve food directly on the train. This food is a small gesture, but it’s making a huge difference for these people. They’ve been waiting for two days at the border. They can’t carry stuff, all they have is a small piece of luggage and their kids. You cannot give them a bag of rice. They need a hot meal.”

There’s a lot of analysis about the food crisis caused by the Russian invasion. Typically, the focus is on how it’s affecting the rest of the world. Inside Ukraine, however, food insecurity has grown at a rapid pace in just few months.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), since Feb. 24, 7 million people were forced to leave their homes. The latest Food Security Report on Ukraine, published by the World Food Programme (WFP) in May 2022, found one-third of households on average are food insecure, with peaks of 50% in the eastern and southern parts of the country. War disrupted everything, and one-third of people reported having no income.

From Garston to the Donbas. Food for All is not the only charity providing food relief to Ukrainian refugees. However, it’s part of a small group, together with World Central Kitchen (WCK) founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, that cooks hot meals for them.

In the U.K., Food for All operates several kitchens around London, Watford and Manchester, cooking and donating around 3,500 meals every day to those in need. It’s completely run by volunteers. For its activity, Food for All received The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2021.

O’Grady, who is a Hare Krishna devotee (his spiritual name is Parasuram Das, although he’s usually called Para for short), came to England from Ireland in 1988. “At the time, we had an Indian restaurant on Soho Street,” he said. “We would close at 8 p.m., take all the food and feed the homeless. In 1999, we registered the charity and kept growing from there. Now we offer Prasadam (a religious offering in both Hinduism and Sikhis) for free at 18 locations around the U.K. and are expanding rapidly.”

In addition to the kitchen in Medyka, Food for All has two more outside Ukraine to feed refugees: one in Wroclaw, where a WCK kitchen operates, and one in Prague. (WCK declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Inside Ukraine, Food for All helped set up nine more kitchens, providing food, equipment and a van: in Lviv (where the charity brought a mobile kitchen with a capacity of 8,000 meals per day), Kyiv and even closer to the war zone in Kharkiv and the Donbass.

“Kitchens in Ukraine are located at local Hare Krishna temples,” said O’Grady. “Before the war, they were already cooking meals for homeless people or those in isolation because of COVID-19. Most volunteers are Hare Krishna devotees. In the Donbass area, there are also soldiers who were wounded but are happy to help chop vegetables.”

Food for All provides equipment and support to three kitchens outside Ukraine to feed refugees who have left, as well as nine more within the country’s borders for people who are still there.
Photo courtesy Food for All

Safe Food with Good Karma. As O’Grady pointed out, cooking hot food to be eaten on the spot doesn’t just provide comfort, it’s also the most practical way to feed refugees who would have no means to cook for themselves.

But it can also be quite risky. During a humanitarian emergency — such as a war or after a hurricane, earthquake or tsunami — with potentially bad sanitary conditions and lack of temperature control equipment, the last thing you want is to cause food poisoning to people who are already in great distress.

Food for All minimizes this risk in various ways. One is to only cook vegetarian food, such as pasta, buckwheat, pulses, rice or a meat-free version of borscht, a typical Ukrainian soup that recently became part of UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in need of Urgent Safeguarding.

“Meat is a high-risk food,” said O’Grady. “By cooking only vegetarian dishes, we don’t have to worry about keeping meat at a certain temperature before and after cooking it.”

“This food is a small gesture, but it’s making a huge difference for these people.” — Food for All Director Peter O’Grady

The other reason for not using meat has to do with the principles of the Hare Krishna movement, which is strictly vegetarian. “People suffer because of bad karma,” said O’Grady. “So, if the food you’ve cooked has caused suffering to some other living being, like a cow, a sheep or a pig, and that suffering is in your food, it’s not going to do you any good karmically. You are what you eat.”

When the war started, with one month of winter still ahead, the cold weather also helped maintain food safety. “Temperatures would drop to -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit) at night,” said O’Grady. “The vegetables we chopped the day before, and the water for the pot, completely froze.”

As temperatures got warmer, their best ally became speed. “We cook the food and put it into insulated containers to keep the temperature high,” O’Grady said. “From there, we give ourselves a three-hour slot to dish it out. We serve it right where we’ve cooked it, or at a location nearby. We just do everything we need as hard and fast as we can. Three hours is more than enough, though. We never have to worry about storing leftovers. When you’ve been doing this for a while, you know exactly how much food you need to cook.”

In conflict zones, the safety of the people preparing the food also has to be considered. In April, a WCK location in Kharkiv was damaged by a Russian missile strike. Four staff were wounded. In June, a train wagon full of food was blown up by a missile.

“We don’t have any volunteers from the U.K. in Ukraine, only local people,” said O’Grady. “In Kyiv, there are not many bombs going off, but [in] Kharkiv, where we’re serving the meals in the underground station, there are nine bombs every minute. That’s really frontline. I get people to sign papers to say that they’re doing it on their own backs, but we generally don’t stay too long.”

“Around 12 million people in Syria, more than half the population, are facing acute food insecurity."  — Reem Alkudsi, World Food Programme national officer in Syria For food safety and quality and food technology

Crisis Upon Crisis. Roughly 1,200 miles south of Kyiv, in Syria, WFP has been running a quite different food relief program since 2011, when the country’s civil war began.

“Around 12 million people in Syria, more than half the population, are facing acute food insecurity, with an additional 1.9 million people at risk of sliding into hunger,” said Reem Alkudsi, WFP national officer in Syria for food safety and quality and food technology. “These numbers are 50% higher than before COVID-19. What’s more, food prices in the country have increased by 800% in the last two years.”

The ripple effect of the war in Ukraine on the food system added to a difficult situation. “Ukraine and Russia were major suppliers of wheat, so the current crisis has disrupted our supply chain,” said Alkudsi. “The issue is not just with increased food prices. Food shipments take longer to arrive. This is happening not just in Syria, but in all countries where WFP operates. At the moment, we’re trying to identify new suppliers to offset the risk.”

Like in Ukraine, a manmade conflict has created a profound food crisis in an otherwise very fertile country. “Before, we didn’t have any food insecurity problem in Syria. We used to have an extended food basket and a thriving local production,” explained Alkudsi.

In Syria, the World Food Programme locally sources fortified date bars for children and others with specific nutritional needs.
Photo courtesy World Food Programme

A Massive Food Relief Program. WFP is responding with one of its largest food relief operations. In 2021, the organization distributed more than 540 metric tons of food and more than $35 million through the cash-based transfer program (CBP), which is increasing year after year. The total reach was 7 million girls, boys, women and men across its activities, including almost 700,000 children with school meals in 3,500 schools across all 14 governorates in the country.

In Syria, WFP collects and distributes three types of food: dry commodities such as bulgur, wheat, fortified wheat flour, fortified oil, dry pulses, iodized salt and sugar; ready-to-eat (RTE) canned food for displaced people or in case of emergencies; and fortified date bars, biscuits and some simple meals such as sandwiches.

“Part of the food we distribute is sourced locally, for example, oil, date bars, iodized salt and RTE meals,” said Alkudsi. “Most of the pulses and wheat flour, however, are imported. One of our objectives is to source more locally, so that we can contribute to the economy. The industrial infrastructure was really affected by the crisis, but now it’s getting back on track, and we are increasing our local procurement here and there.”

Fortified food, especially wheat, oil and date bars, is an important part of WFP’s program. “We have two different categories of fortified food,” explained Alkudsi. “One is highly enriched with vitamins and minerals and is intended to treat and prevent malnutrition in children and pregnant and lactating women, and one for the general population. Our fortified wheat flour is imported, but we’re launching a new program to mill and fortify wheat ourselves.”

“By cooking only vegetarian dishes, we don’t have to worry about keeping meat at a certain temperature.” — O’Grady

Back-to-Back Controls. Although part of the food is donated by governments or large organizations, WFP buys most of it directly. Once the procurement machine is set in motion, there are strict procedures to minimize risk of contamination or quality issues. “We categorize food in low, medium and high food safety and quality risk. Grains and sugar are low risk, fortified flours and oil are medium risk, while milk, canned products and date bars are high risk,” said Alkudsi. “Based on that, we have different controls on the supplier side. Especially if it’s high-risk food for children and vulnerable people, suppliers need to pass an SQL assessment at their factories before they can work with us. All checks are done by accredited inspection and superintendent companies. Before the food is handed over to us, we do visual inspections and may have samples tested by accredited labs all over the world or locally, depending on the food.”

If there are no issues, then the shipment is released and enters WFP’s supply chain. From here, the organization constantly supervises all the steps that follow. “Our inspection companies are always present whenever food is loaded or offloaded. ... We do more visual checks and, if needed, we take more samples to make sure the food was not deteriorated or tampered with while in transit,” said Alkudsi.

The next stop for food is the warehouse. “In Syria, our warehouses are not only for storage; we do some processing too. Because we buy food in bulk, we have simple production lines where we repack it in smaller portions to get it ready for distribution. Our contracted inspection companies also check the restocking process to ensure that we always have the right quality and quantity of food available,” said Alkudsi.

Repacked food is then handed over to the partnering nongovernmental organization responsible for distributing.

In WFP’s activity, there’s also room for some basic food safety education for the population. “In 2020, we put fliers in the ration boxes with hygiene instructions on COVID-19. For our School Meal project in Aleppo, we also packed sandwiches with paper bags with illustrations and attractive pictures to teach children a few basic hygiene measures to take before they consume their food,” said Alkudsi. “Currently, we’re working on a new project in cooperation with the Ministries of Education and Health to apply more structured social behavior changes.”

The quality and safety of the food are not the only aspect controlled. “From the quality checks of suppliers to distribution, we do regular monitoring and performance evaluation for every partner,” said Alkudsi.

The most processing that WFP does in Syria is simple cold sandwiches for its school program in Aleppo and soon for Rural Damascus. “We don’t distribute hot cooked food to people,” said Alkudsi. “We have one project for Ukrainian refugees in Moldova, where food is cooked by catering companies. Our team of technologists went there to assess the caterers and to provide recommendations on how to safely handle food preparation and distribution. ... We’re not planning to do the same here in Syria.”

“Ukraine and Russia were major suppliers of wheat, so the current crisis has disrupted our supply chain.” — Alkudsi 

No Typical Day. Part of Alkudsi’s job is to make sure that the specifications of the food they receive comply with those established by WFP and the Syrian government, which can be quite strict. This can be challenging, as the organization receives all kinds of food from different countries, each one with its own specifications and regulatory systems.

A typical day at work for Alkudsi is divided between upstream, managing suppliers and handling the steps before food is handed over to WFP, and downstream, namely dealing with issues occurring during transportation or at the warehouses.

Whenever a food safety or quality incident happens, it becomes the priority. “We have a well-structured incident management procedure to identify and handle any situation,” said Alkudsi. “What lowers risk is that we don’t handle a lot of canned food. We only do two or three contracts a year, so quantities are not as big as for dry commodities. Typical issues can be molding, swelling of cans or spilling of food. The most common one, however, would be infestation due to bad storage conditions or humidity during transit. Wheat flour, for example, travels two or three months at sea to reach Syria, often from a very different climate. When we have a case of infestation, we go through a process of fumigation, inspection and segregation to make sure that only good quality food is reaching our beneficiaries.”

None of these issues are as bad as distributing contaminated food to the population. “If that happened, it would be very serious. We would have to account for it with the government and the press,” said Alkudsi. “Fortunately, we haven’t had any incident like that at least for the last four or five years.”

The author is a regular contributor to QA.