“We have to see that nobody goes hungry within a 10-mile radius,” Srila Prabhupada said during the Gaura Purnima Festival in Mayapur in 1973. Inspired by this statement, volunteers for the non-profit organization Hunger-Free Zone are ensuring that no one within ten miles of their kitchen in Baltimore goes hungry. It’s a much-needed service, as the city has the highest poverty rate in Maryland, 131.5% above the state’s poverty line.
Headed up by Baltimore temple president Nila Madhava Das and devotees from the Baltimore temple, the food truck project has been in the works for some time, and launched three months ago. Devotees like cooks Siddhaswarup Das and Panchatattva Das, communications and IT support manager Shyamrup Das, Sampradaya Das, and Executive Chef Sankirtan Yajna Das are among those behind the effort.
The team distributes 200 piping hot vegan meals a day, six days a week, and has so far served over 16,000 meals to the needy in Baltimore. Every day, volunteers cook from around 10:30 am until 1:00 pm in a state-of-the-art kitchen. At 2:00 pm Sankirtan Yajna, who has been doing prasadam distribution for over 20 years, arrives from his day job and heads out with the Hunger-Free Zone truck to a number of designated spots, to reach those in need.
“Some people are impoverished because they have no jobs or low income,” Sankirtan explains. “There are over 319 apartment complexes where the residents make less than $30,000 a year. So we go to some of them. We also go to senior citizen homes; to the homeless; to recovery homes, where people are trying to get over addiction; and to the streets where people who are impoverished congregate.”
Hunger Free Zone ensures plenty of variety, with 17 different international menus offering different types of rice, subji, beans, pasta dishes, and the ever-popular halava for dessert.
“Everyone, young and old, loves halava!” Sankirtan Yajna says. “We make many different flavors – peach, mandarin orange, raisin apple, banana… When we give people the raisin apple, they say, ‘Oh, it’s apple pie without the crust!’ Or when we give them peach halava, they say, “It’s peach cobbler!’”
According to Sankirtan Yajna, people couldn’t believe it when they first saw the Hunger-Free Zone food truck, and were told that its hot delicious cuisine was actually free.
“Wherever we go, people are all just so happy,” he says. “They start saying, ‘I’m telling you now, this is the best I’ve ever had!’ Or ‘What have you got today? I want some of those sweet grits!’”
Sankirtan Yajna also notes that while the people Hunger Free Zone serves may be materially impoverished, they are certainly not spiritually impoverished.
“When you’re giving prasadam out to a line of 15 people, at least 13 say, ‘God bless you,’ or ‘Oh, you’re doing God’s work,’ or ‘This is so amazing – the Lord’s surely gonna take care of you,’” he points out.
Many are struck by the unique quality of prasadam, and after eating it for several weeks will ask questions like, “This is the most amazing food! Who are you? How do you do this?”
“I say, ‘There’s a secret ingredient,’” Sankirtan Yajna explains. “I look around like I’m not allowed to talk about it. Then I say, ‘It’s L-O-V-E for the Lord.’ And they go, ‘What! I’ve gotta have more of that!’”
Some people, after seeing Srila Prabhupada’s smiling face on the side of the truck, and asking Sankirtan who he is, request to read about Prabhupada, and take some of his books home.
Sankirtan Yajna continues to be driven by his desire to feed people, and ultimately to carry out Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Srila Prabhupada’s desire. He quotes Srila Prabhupada’s purport to Sri Caitanya-charitamrita, Antya-lila 1.32: “By rendering a little service, even by eating prasada, not to speak of chanting and dancing, everyone could be promoted to Vaikunthaloka.”
Looking to the future, Sankirtan hopes to get enough funding from supporters for Hunger-Free Zone to be able to distribute 500 meals a day.
“More support means more impact,” he says. “And that means more prasadam, more food going to the people that need it.”
For more information and to support Hunger Free Zone, please visit: http://hungerfreezone.org/
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