By Anon Yu Henriksen, BA International Relations and Korean
‘Do you want anything to drink?’ The first question that greets me as I approach the trolley standing right outside the SOAS gates exudes generosity. This SOAS staple is heavily used by our student body, myself included. Although, I am always left with a full stomach and a brain full of questions. Why are we offered free lunch every day? Who are these people? Where is the food from?
Being offered a drink at the trolley is not a normalcy, but rather an act of additional hospitality. Ibragim Demessinov, the man behind the act, hands me a Pepsi Cola after I have accepted his offer, and starts telling me about the free meals. ‘Today alone, I estimate that we have given out roughly 500 warm meals here at SOAS. I know that from counting the paper plates that are left.’ Demessinov used to work as a Data Analysis Chief Expert for the government in his home country Kazakhstan, and I see a connection between his last occupation and his analytical approach to the stacks of paper plates balanced on the trolley. Demessinov swapped data models and government offices with delightful meals and generous offers and now works full-time as a volunteer for the charity ‘Food for All’. It is this charity that is responsible for the free lunches at SOAS, as well as in many other places in London. In total, Food for All provides people with around 3,000 meals every day.
As I spot what seems to be a religious symbol on the trolley, I ask Demessinov whether Food for All holds any religious or political affiliations. He answers that the founder was a follower of Hare Krishna, a religious movement founded in the USA. Demessinov further comments that he himself is part of Hare Krishna. Adherents of the group follow strict principles, amongst them, Demessinov mentions bans on meat, drugs, alcohol and premarital sex.
However, it is important for Demessinov to stress that Food for All has a diverse set of volunteers who follow many different religions. Demessinov also says that the aim of the charity is not religious, but is to provide food for anyone, no matter their background. This is also why all of their meals are vegetarian. ‘We want our food to be accessible to everyone, no matter if they are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, vegan, or vegetarian,’ he says, alluding to different religious and dietary restrictions on consuming animalistic products.
As lunchtime approaches, students line up to get their free meal. Some UCL students can also be spotted, revealed by their brightly coloured blue lanyards. Enjoying the typical stew, many might not consider the lengthy process behind the meal. All of the produce is donated by different sponsors – Tesco being one of them – and turning the produce into a warm meal includes a lot of work in the early hours of the day.
Every morning, Monday through Friday, Food for All’s full-time chef opens their Euston-based kitchen at 6:30 a.m. In order to cook for 3,000 Londoners, the chef is accompanied by volunteers from a plethora of different workplaces. Demessinov describes the atmosphere in their kitchen as ‘cooperative’. Some days, the atmosphere can also be quite corporate, with suit-clad employees from companies such as Goldman Sachs and Barclays occasionally volunteering in the kitchen. In theory, your free-of-charge vegetarian stew might have been cooked by a ‘finance bro’! After the dishes are finished, they are transported in big insulating boxes on trolleys, rickshaws, and cycles.
When asked, Demessinov disagrees with the notion that there are other groups in society that could benefit more from receiving free meals than students: ‘You are one of the most important parts of our population. However, you are also a group that needs to be looked after, and sometimes receive some extra help.’ Demessinov additionally gives an anecdotal angle: ‘In an interview, Steve Jobs said that the only thing that kept him and his health afloat during his student years was the local Hare Krishna temple, where he could eat free and healthy meals. This shows how big an impact free meals can have on students, and later on society at large. Maybe the next Steve Jobs is here at SOAS, having our free meals?!’
As the time approaches 2 p.m., the queue to the yellow trolley shortens, and the insulated boxes are almost emptied. The three volunteers can let their sleeves down and conclude another day of feeding SOAS with free and accessible meals. What awaits is some hours of rest, before the same cycle repeats, to our and 2,500 other Londoners’ delight.
PS: For anyone who still has not tried the free meals, test it out every weekday between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m.
Photo Caption: Demessinov and two other volunteers from Food for All. (Credit: Anon Yu Henriksen)