- Bringing more than just meals to the tables of Sri Lankan communities
It doesn’t take a lot to get us feeling down these days. All one has to do is switch on the news or even take a stroll (when curfew lets up) on the roads. This week’s events – the protests laced with violence and destruction of property – have only added to the despair. The collective Sri Lankan spirit has moved along the ambit of frustration, despair, fear, and now anxiety.
When I stumbled on an initiative by Nadeeka Jayasinghe, Gyan Weerakoon, and Fazeena Rajabdeen – ‘Eat Happy by Community Meal Share’ – there was a much-needed sense of hope. Jayasinghe has practised as a Critical Care Nurse in Australia since the year 2006 with short stints in Dubai as well. “As critical care nurses, during a crisis, we have been taught to stop what we are doing and support the critically ill patient. This is exactly what Community Meal Share is doing with the island that is heavily bleeding right now,” she shares, speaking with The Sunday Morning Brunch. Jayasinghe is currently involved in nursing education in Sri Lanka as the Head of Nursing at Horizon Campus.
Jayasinghe, who was also involved in humanitarian work in Vanuatu before coming back to Sri Lanka, says that the current climate in Sri Lanka has left a lot of her friends and family members asking her why she is not going back to Australia. “Both Australia and Sri Lanka are home to me… I just feel that this is not the time to leave Sri Lanka,” she explains.
‘Eat Happy by Community Meal Share’ was started by Jayasinghe and her partner Weerakoon to support underprivileged communities around their homes. While Jayasinghe and Weerakoon run the operations of the project, Rajabdeen heads Strategy and Development. What started as very small meal drives funded by friends and family has now evolved to them working with multiple communities in Sri Lanka, funded by donations from local and international well-wishers.
Rajabdeen, who is no stranger in the creative industry of Sri Lanka as Colombo Fashion Week Director and CEO and Responsible Fashion Movement in Sri Lanka Executive Member, shares that getting involved with the initiative was a “no-brainer” for her. “It seemed like the need of the hour,” she adds.
We caught up with Jayasinghe and Rajabdeen to get to know more.
Tell us about ‘Eat Happy by Community Meal Share’.
We started this project in an unofficial capacity this year and our work came to be highlighted and supported over the past few months. We do not just bring meals to the tables of communities, we also bring a different set of values. We believe our work is a movement where they get the support they need with no judgement or bias. We currently serve selected communities in five provinces.
How bad would you say the food shortage is in Sri Lanka right now? How do you gather your data?
Inflation is the highest it’s ever been. The price of basic food items such as rice, dhal, and sugar has increased tremendously. There is no cooking gas available and people are unable to feed their families. Those that are vulnerable (such as the elderly and children) are heavily impacted by this and communities that were already marginalised such as minority groups and estate workers, etc. are suffering immensely. We get data from community leaders in the area and unbiased media sources and we do our due diligence before serving the community. Most often the stories and needs come directly from the people who are impacted, who we encounter in our day-to-day lives.
How do you identify which communities you want to help and how do you go about doing this?
We initially identified our communities through personal contacts or whoever reached out to us for support. I think it’s also safe to say that in Sri Lanka, unfortunately, you need not go too far to find communities that require support. It’s important to us though that once we find a community, we visit those areas once a week (minimum). This way the community is aware that they will receive a warm cooked meal every week which we hope is somewhat of a relief to them. According to our development plan, sustaining the communities through this period is vital to relieve their hardship so our purpose is not a one-off meal drive. We have also expanded our work into schools and the Provincial Directors have been supporting us with baseline information. We take privacy very seriously and do not photograph any of the meal recipients.
Do you work with restaurants/cafes?
We currently work with restaurants and bakeries to prepare our meals and bread. Our meal suppliers include Amenda and Shane from Rasa Kadalla and HiGene Life, a cloud kitchen. We have been getting the meals at a subsidised fee which is fantastic. We also aim to expand our restaurant network to provide small businesses financial support during this difficult time.
Nadeeka, in your interview on the podcast Swana Region Radio, you talk a little about a different aspect of Sri Lanka that you are seeing right now, particularly with relation to people fighting for food. Care to elaborate on this?
We are seeing an immense amount of distress and desperation in the communities we serve. Having said that, I must acknowledge that during the war (and post-war era) many Sri Lankans in the North and the East were reported to have experienced similar amounts of food scarcity. Whilst these current experiences are confronting, they nevertheless give us an opportunity to formulate strategies to reach out to more communities in dire and desperate situations.
Fazeena, you make an important distinction in the same podcast about how it’s not only the homeless that need food right now. Care to elaborate?
As Sri Lankans, we have always done meal rounds to the homeless and needy. However, this time around we are seeing larger communities, especially the lower middle class, who are desperate and in need of meals. Inflation, the lack of access to gas, and increase in food costs make it impossible for these families to eat three meals and feed their children. We as a country have faced this during the civil war period but that was in a marginalised community whose suffering the majority of the country was not aware of. This time, however, everyone is feeling the desperation and it really is food for thought on what unity and success in a community mean and how we as a society need to stand for it.
What other sad realities do you experience through your work?
Every meal drive or kitchen run is an eye-opener for us. We see vulnerability each day. School meal drives have been particularly difficult, especially because we know that many children are not receiving the adequate amount of nutrition, and as mothers, we too realise we are dealing with the future of this country. We have also experienced many instances where people have fought for the food we distribute, and this can be very confronting and challenging at times.
Understandably, there’s a lot of frustration among people right now given what Sri Lanka is going through. How important do you think are positive and practical initiatives like Community Meal Share in spreading some light during a dark time such as this?
As citizens, it’s very easy to feel helpless during a crisis. We have gone from an economic crisis to a political crisis and now a humanitarian crisis. We found that this charity allows us to engage with those less privileged and provide them with hope. We hope that this initiative provides the unity and solidarity that we all need and deserve. With every crisis rises an opportunity and we felt it important to focus and seek that with the work we do. We have now served over 10,000 meals to over 15 different communities in 60 days. That to us is strength in these times. The project has given us many new ideas to engage and empower the communities we deal with and we hope to do so in the future once we have some breathing space from the economic crisis.
What is your message to fellow Sri Lankans during this time of crisis?
This is a unique time in the history of Sri Lanka and there really is no formula that can be prescribed to move forward. The future is not like the past (eg: the 1983 riots, the civil war, or the 1988-1989 period). We now get to decide what kind of future we want and choose the kind of role models that could lead us. If you feel hopeless during this crisis, look around you and find inspiration and goodness. For us, we have been inspired by the communities around us and our volunteers and donors. There is much goodness around us, we just need to find it to move forward.