Volunteering With Refugees in Northern Greece 4: The Food Project

Just how do you spend €20,000 a month on vegetables? Simple. You manage The Food Project working with refugees in Thessaloniki. That figure shoots quickly up to €70,000 once you add in the dried food that the project also supply.

The initiative started as a means of addressing some of the nutritional deficiencies of the food served in the refugee camps around the city. Many of the camps in Greece are under military control with catering facilities contracted out to the lowest bidder. That’s where The Food Project come in.

What Is The Food Project?

Jonas and Lily, the project leaders, work with the camps to supplement diets. They work with Spanish emergency response organisation AIRE and The German organisation IHA to distribute fruit and vegetables, and more recently dried food, to people who need them.

I joined the project for a few days to learn a little about what they do and the first stop was at the Central Vegetable Market of Thessaloniki. It was Veggie Valhalla. Stacks and stacks of the freshest, juiciest, most delicious vegetables lay in wait for us. They didn’t wait long. The team from AIRE loaded the day’s haul into their van and led the way to the Help Refugees Warehouse for the fruit and veg to be sorted.

The Food Project is another project that is funded by Help Refugees and they have their own space at the back of the warehouse, built especially for them by the talented Get Shit Done Team. Help Refugees are the primary finders of the project with other donors supplementing the needs of the project.

All of the groups based at the warehouse support each other and help each other out, so I was delighted to see that nothing went to waste. After we had sorted the fruit and vegetables and prepared hundreds of bags with specific rations to be distributed to families and individuals, the leftovers were donated to a very grateful Soul Food Kitchen.

Check out Help Refugees’ video about the project. Can you even picture what 3.5 tonnes of onions might look like?

THE FOOD PROJECT: IMPROVING DIETS, ENABLING INDEPENDENCEA good meal provides more than just sustenance. It gives a sense of normality, of routine; it brings people together. Across refugee camps in Greece, tasty, nutritious food can be hard to come by. Military rations are often substandard, and residents’ lack of funds mean their options to supplement these meals are limited. Eating this low-quality, unfamiliar food is demoralising. But more than this, it’s a hindrance to health, especially in the development of babies and children. The Food Project is based on a simple idea. By providing fresh fruit and vegetables, it improves the diets of camp residents, but also helps to enable more independent living. Refugees can cook the food they want to eat. Food that’s familiar, healthy and homely. It’s a small but important step in restoring dignity and making life feel a little more normal. Please donate to support this project at www.helprefugees.org.uk

Posted by Help Refugees on Thursday, February 16, 2017

Getting Stuck In

In all of the other organisations I’ve gotten to know during my volunteer work over the past four months, there’s a kind of acceptance that you will take on any task that needs to be done. It doesn’t matter how difficult it is, how dirty you might get or even how dull the job may be. There’s an unspoken understanding among volunteers that it just needs to get done. So when we discovered that many bottles of oil had been damaged, I somehow found myself trying to salvage what I could of hundreds of litres of olive oil. I was greasy and dripping by the time I was done, but pretty pleased that we’d been able to hit the numbers for distribution and still salvage enough to give to the kitchen. My clothes, on the other hand, suffered a much worse fate.

The Work of The Food Project

The project distributes 4000 portions each week, so the bags that we spend the mornings filling are taken to the camps in the afternoons to deliver to the families and the individuals who need them. I went with Jonas to distribute 275 portions of vegetables to the residents at Diavata camp in the Thessaloniki suburbs.

It wasn’t at all what I expected. I’d heard stories of oppression and mistreatment. While I don’t doubt that these problems exist, they weren’t evident in that camp on that day. In fact, I was surprised to find the supervising soldier having banter and being friendly with the camp residents. He joked that he would refuse to allow a teenage boy to collect his family’s food until he had brought his guitar to play a song. Delighted with himself, the boy put on a show for all gathered and even drew a few more neighbours into the food tent. He collected his food among cheers from his fans. The loudest clap came from the supervising soldier.

When I saw for myself the food that was being given to the residents, I understood even more why the food project is so important. The catering staff explained the weekly menu. It was mostly rice, sometimes pasta or potatoes. Chicken made an appearance once or twice a week, but mostly it was beans. And there were one or two days a week with no source of protein.

There were never vegetables.

It’s not that the catering team don’t care. Or the military representatives. From what I saw, they cared a lot, but were clearly working within limited budgets and resources themselves. The fact that we were there, that we were allowed past security and even welcomed, spoke volumes. So often in Greece, NGOs and projects that are not state run are turned away, their help rejected. They’re treated with suspicion. That wasn’t the case with The Food Project and as I had arrived with Jonas, I had seen the high regard he and his project were held in by the warm welcomes and the bright smiles from military and refugees alike.


The Food Project Highlights

My favourite thing about the Food Project is not just that they supply the vegetables and food to those who need it, but that they supply it fresh and raw. It’s not only about nutrients. It’s about giving people the tiniest bit of independence to cook their food, their way. They don’t need to eat it out of an aluminium tin. They don’t have to eat what’s put in front of them. They can claim back just a tiny bit of their own culture and traditions by preparing meals that have something familiar and comforting about them.

How little we appreciate the importance of the taste of home.

How to Help

The Food Project is funded by Help Refugees. If you’d like to make a donation, you can find out how to do that here. Or if you want to get involved by volunteering, you can contact IndiGO Volunteer at refugeevolunteering@indigovolunteers.org

As always, I love to hear from you, so don’t be shy. Leave a comment, get in touch or follow the social media pages. All deets below.

3 Comment

  1. That’s such an amazing initiative – never thought about the problems people have getting fresh produce in these types of situations. And I love how you pointed out that having the uncooked vegetables allows them some freedom, independence, and cultural tradition. Those kinds of things are soo important. Sounds like an eye-opening experience to be able to witness first-hand. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks Sam. Yes, it’s a great initiative and I’m delighted I could be part of it. We underestimate how important it is for people to be able to hold on to their own traditions and customs. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Wendy says: Reply

    Wow, what a great project. I never realized how much we (my family and I) take fresh produce for granted, and what our diets would look like without it. Thank you so much for sharing!

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