Places of mass gathering that were abruptly stilled by COVID-19 - marriage halls, public halls, office canteens and school auditoriums - have become the biggest hope for the poor and the needy in the time of the contagion.
Already, 25 'community kitchens' have been opened in large deserted private and public halls to prepare food for the deserving in the 100 wards of Thiruvananthapuram Corporation.
On March 29, 5,760 lunches were distributed from the 25 community kitchens. Each kitchen will serve four to five wards in the Corporation. In about three days, these kitchens are expected to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner to nearly 8,000 who would have otherwise gone dangerously hungry during the lockdown.
“The number of people in need will keep increasing for some more days. Two days ago, when we began the kitchens following the call given by the chief minister, we had packed less than 3,000 lunches. The numbers will go up until most of the needy are covered,” Corporation secretary Deepa told Onmanorama.
The Corporation has published three numbers to which those in need could call and place their orders. “Our hope is only the genuinely hungry will call us, and that the opportunity is not taken advantage of by the greedy and the unscrupulous,” Deepa said.
Role of councillors
Ward councillors can be of help here. They can ensure that the food packets are placed in the right hands. “We know our wards like the back of our hands, we know where the poor and the old and the sick live. So if we are honest, there will be no leakage,” said I P Binu, the councillor of Kunnukuzhy ward who is manning the Palayam 'community ktichen' circle that caters to Palayam and Kunnukuzhi wards.
Church and NSS
Binu said the response to the community kitchen concept was overwhelming. “Religious and social organisations and individuals were only too eager to throw open their premises for the community kitchens,” Binu said.
The Corporation secretary said marriage halls, canteens and large private catering centres were preferred because these places already have the services of good cooks and helpers. “We just have to give them their remuneration. They also get work during the lockdown,” Deepa said.
Some like the CSI Church made available not just their building (LMS Church hall, Palayam) but also their cooks for free. The Corporation converted their own or government-controlled buildings (government schools, community halls, Secretariat and district court canteens) wherever possible. It approached private individuals and religious and social organisations only when there were no suitable public buildings to convert. In Sasthamangalm, the community kitchen is run from the NSS (Nair Service Society) hall.
The Corporation also found it easy to shift to the 'community kitchen' mode as it was already serving food to nearly 300 destitutes and the hundreds kept in isolation in the various Covid Care centres in the city.
Decentralised sourcing of supplies
Nonetheless, getting raw supplies for the larger 'community kitchen' operation was a bit tricky. “With most of the shops closed, we had trouble getting enough materials. The mayor (K Sreekumar) then called up big retail shops like Pothy's that had large stocks and sought their cooperation. They were game,” the Corporation secretary said.
Even large retail shops cannot meet the demand of all the community kitchens. So, ward councillors manning community kitchens have been asked to source supplies from their nearest big retail shop. Stocking of supplies, therefore, is done in a decentralised manner.
The food that is prepared in these community kitchens are then distributed to the doorsteps by volunteers picked up for the purpose. “We were a bit way about volunteers initially as we feared that they would use the volunteer pass to do what they need. So even now we are depending a lot on the Corporation's sanitation staff, who have a close bond with houses in a ward, to distribute the food packets,” councillor Binu said.
He said the Corporation had to even politely turn down some who had volunteered. “Popular film stars had expressed their willingness to be volunteers. But we dissuaded them saying if they start going around, a crowd would automatically form around them defeating the very principle of social distancing,” Binu said.