How government, local groups are ensuring a hunger-free Kerala

Apart from the government’s community kitchens, initiatives by organisations, individuals and local groups to distribute food for free have ensured no one goes hungry amid lockdowns.
Volunteers pack food for COVID-19 patients at a community kitchen in Kozhikode
Volunteers pack food for COVID-19 patients at a community kitchen in Kozhikode
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The Muhammaden LP School in Vadakkekara in Ernakulam’s North Paravur wears a busy look at midday as volunteers, Kudumbashree workers and a few representatives from the panchayat go about their tasks. The school has been converted to a community kitchen named Ujjeevnam since the first week of May. Hundreds of neatly packed food parcels – containing rice, a curry like sambar or dal, a vegetable side dish like thoran, another side dish like avial or pachadi and pickle – are kept ready before noon on classroom benches. Emergency response team volunteers door deliver the hot food to the needy on time.

From this school, the panchayat provides free breakfast and lunch to COVID-19 patients who can’t cook at home, to others who struggle for food, and to migrant labourers in 20 wards. This is one among the many panchayats in Kerala to start a community kitchen immediately after the lockdown was announced on May 4. On the very first day, they distributed food to more than 300 people.

Kerala is setting an example in ensuring no one goes hungry during the pandemic and the several resultant lockdowns. Not just the government, but at grassroots level too many organisations, individuals and local groups irrespective of politics have started or are taking part in initiatives to ensure food for all.

Community kitchens

In March 2020 when the lockdown was first introduced in the country, the Kerala government initiated community kitchens with the help of local-self-governments and the Kudumbashree mission. Though initially migrant labourers were not included in the scheme, soon they were added too. The government also provided free grocery and essential items kits to citizens. There were even measures to feed stray dogs and monkeys when markets and shops were closed.

“Homeless people, guest workers (migrant labourers), aged people, people from adivasi hamlets, bedridden patients, marginalised communities, inmates at care homes and those who make a living through beggary cannot buy food during lockdown. So community kitchens aim at providing them free food,” says a government order from the local self government department in April 2020.

This year too, a majority of the local self-governing bodies, including block panchayats, grama panchayats, municipalities and corporations, are running community kitchens as directed by the state government. They are run in schools, auditoriums or similar spaces which have space for cooking facilities. People working for the community kitchens are volunteers and they don’t get any remuneration. Apart from government funds, many individuals and organisations sponsor these kitchens to support the local bodies. Some cooperative societies and voluntary organisations also run community kitchens.

As per government data, from March – May 2020, 86,51,627 people were served food through community kitchens run by all the 1,034 local self-governing bodies. By the third week of May 2020, the kitchens were closed and reopened in May first week this year when a second lockdown was announced.

"I go for construction works, from where I got infected. I stay with my 80-year-old mother. After I turned positive for coronavirus in May second week, we were getting food from the community kitchen. My mother is aged so she was not able to cook or go buy groceries, moreover we did not have money also. So our ward member called me and said they would arrange food. Some kids brought us food daily even after I turned negative. Now I've told them that I'm able to cook myself, " Ajayan from Kozhikode said.

Free ration kits

From April 2020, the state government has been distributing free grocery and essential items kits to everyone, irrespective of their economic status, through 14,242 shops that come under the Department of Food and Civil Supplies. The kits contain 17 items required for a family for a month, including rice, pulses, oil, masalas and soaps. Until March 2021, over 87 lakh families in the state benefitted from the scheme. Launched on April 10, 2020, the state distributed 47,000 kits on the first day. This has become one of the most popular policies of the Kerala government during the pandemic.

After festival kits were distributed for Vishu and Easter in April this year, the government again announced free food kits in May. The food kits are also distributed to school children, as midday meals at schools are no longer possible. Children studying in special schools, including BUDS institutions, are also included. In 2020, the children’s kits were door-delivered, then distributed at schools, and now the government is going to introduce a coupon that students can use to collect kits from civil supply stores.

As migrant workers in the state have a different food culture, food from the community kitchens was not suiting them. So the government decided to provide food kits to them too, which has already benefitted more than 70,000 guest workers.

Speaking to TNM, Ernakulam District Collector S Suhas “In Ernakulam alone, this year we have distributed food kits among 25,000 migrant labourers, the highest in the state. We ensured that no one goes hungry. Call centres have been set up exclusively for them at the Collectorate, where they can communicate in five different languages. We have deployed a few from among the migrant labourers in the call centres.”

He added that WhatsApp groups have also been created, with the Deputy labour officer and Deputy collector coordinating to ensure the workers’ welfare. “Our food kit distribution campaign had very few complaints,” the Collector added.

Along with food, even kerosene was distributed to the migrant workers.

Janakeeya restaurants

Janakeeya restaurants, which provide meals at subsidised rates, also come under local self-governing bodies, but are mainly run by the Kudumbashree mission. A proper lunch is available here for Rs 20. The Civil Supplies Department provides groceries at subsidised rates to these restaurants and local bodies help pay the rent for the space used to run the restaurant.

In fact, Janakeeya restaurants that will provide meals for Rs 25 were announced by then Finance Minister Thomas Isaac during the 2020 budget, prior to the pandemic. Later it was included as one of the ‘100 days 100 projects’ plans by the state in August 2020. Considering the COVID-19 crisis, the meal rate was reduced to Rs 20.

“This is a project to provide good food to people at a reasonable rate. It also enables women in the Kudumbashree mission to get some extra income,” an order from the Kudumbashree Executive Director says. The lunch menu at these restaurants include rice, pickles and three vegetarian side dishes. They also have options like fish curry, fish fry and meat preparations for an extra charge. They also provide breakfast, but not at subsidised rates. A majority of the existing Kudumbashree restaurants have been converted to Janakeeya restaurants.

Individual efforts

A year later, when the lockdown was imposed once again, more than community kitchens these individual initiatives are becoming known for free food distribution. Many legislators, including Palakkad MLA Shafi Parambil and senior Congress leader Oommen Chandy, are actively involved in distributing food for the hungry.

Shafi Parambil has started a unit along with a few youngsters in a janakeeya restaurant in Palakkad where food is prepared. The MLA also takes part in packing the rice and side dishes. The food is distributed in Palakkad town on two-wheelers.

“We distribute food to COVID-19 patients who are in home quarantine and unable to prepare food at home. Apart from that, other people who are going hungry are also provided food. COVID-19 patients can call and register at our number, after which food will be delivered at their homes,” Shafi told the media.

He also informed that the initiative will continue until the lockdown ends.

Under the leadership of Oommen Chandy, a group of Congress workers in Kottayam’s Puthupally have started to distribute lunch to needy people. They also said that it will continue till the lockdown ends.

Apart from leaders, there are hundreds of citizens involved in food distribution.

Meanwhile, student police cadets in the state have also launched a campaign called ‘Feed a stomach’, through which hundreds of food packets are being distributed in almost all districts in the state.

In Kozhikode, the Nadakakvu government school student police cadets have opened a community kitchen under the ‘Feed a stomach’ campaign. Students from 30 schools are involved in the project. Each day one school volunteers to cook and distribute food. Many NGOs and the city police also cooperate with them. They distribute around 500 lunch packets daily.

Some groups are involved in distributing food to police officials on duty who are unable to eat as restaurants are closed. Anwar, a native of Thrissur, distributes lunch to around 200 policemen daily free of cost.

In some places like Pala in Kottayam district, the police are working with other organisations to distribute food. For instance, personnel from the Janamaithri police station are coordinating with some NGOs to arrange food for the needy.

Apart from this, student political organisations such as the Youth Congress, Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) and others are also actively involved in food distribution in many places.

In every panchayat in a district, there is more than one group that is distributing free food. In Kannur’s Sreekandapuram block, the Congress committee distributes food to 100 people daily while in Kannur district panchayat, it is the DYFI members who distribute food.

At every local body in the state there are such groups that ensure that no one goes hungry.

“In the town area, some groups are always distributing food. It’s not the same people. So we go to the spot and can get food. During the lockdown, we have no work so this is a blessing,” Mahesh Kumar, a migrant worker from Jharkhand who works in Thiruvananthapuram, says. He added that during the triple lockdown, some people would come to the house where 10 of them stay and provide food.

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