Gandharvika Prema Dasi with the representative of the Budapest Bank, one of the sponsors
After a decade of distributing free vegetarian food in the busy Blaha Lujza square, ISKCON devotees in Budapest, Hungary have been forced by the Municipal Government to move their Food For Life soup kitchen to the less-than-ideal Teleki square.
Authorities contacted Food For Life in November 2010, and began a series of compliance checks, before telling devotees that they had to free up the space so that the area could be converted into a park. Food for Life insisted on using their long-time location, and a long series of negotiations followed. Finally in mid-May this year, devotees agreed to move to Teleki square.
“The new location is less accessible, and public safety there is questionable,” says Food For Life manager Gandharvika Prema Dasi. “It may frighten away our more vulnerable beneficiaries, such as poor pensioners.”
Food For Life: Feeding the Needy was launched in Budapest back in 1989, with free food distributed sporadically during Christian holidays, and fruit and vegetables distributed from the back of a truck.
In 1999, after it was officially registered as a non-profit organization, efforts became more systematic. Food For Life began to feed 150 people daily with cooked food, and in 2001 it launched a winter program of distributing hot tea and breadrolls in the evenings at Blaha Lujza square, one of the busiest in Budapest.
“The news spread, and more and more people came to get free sanctified vegetarian food, or prasadam, from us,” says Gandharvika-Prema. “These days we feed 500 people in the city, and distribute a further 500 plates to needy families near the Budapest temple, in cooperation with the local government—that’s a total of 1,000 plates every day!”
Prasadam comes in healthy, nourishing servings that appeal to the Hungarian palate. Dishes include beans, lentils, cabbage, bread, fruits, and yoghurt.
While seventy per cent of the early beneficiaries of the charity consisted of homeless people, the disabled and retirees, the majority of current ‘customers’ are the jobless, mortgage victims and elderly persons with meager finances.
“As well as our regular programs in Budapest, we also occasionally distribute food in country towns were there are ISKCON congregational centers,” Gandharvika-Prema says. “And when there are natural calamities throughout the world—such as the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, or the recent ‘red mud’ industrial waste catastrophe in Hungary—we participate in the relief programs, distributing prasadam to victims and relief workers alike.”
These efforts have been highly lauded, with Food For Life’s Sri Lanka and Haiti relief workers given high-level state decorations, and its family assistance program near the Budapest temple awarded the prestigious Fischer Agoshton prize by the local municipality.
Today, Food For Life Hungary continues to serve, undaunted by the recent move to a less ideal location.
“This arrangement is temporary, and we will continue to negotiate with the Municipality,” says Gandharvika-Prema. “In the meantime, we intend to further increase the number of portions we distribute, as the demand seems to be endless! We are also starting a new family assistance program in the 7th district, and plan to develop our prasadam distribution in Somogyvámos village, next to the rural Krishna-valley community.”