Communal food co-op of Kathmandu: feeding the elderly and disabled
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
I live in Handigaon, the oldest settlement of the Kathmandu Valley. It is in the old urban core of Kathmandu. A vegetable market is the central heart of our neighborhood where daily interactions between neighbors take place. About 30 vendors gather there daily to sell their wares.
Fresh spinach are piled up in carts, jyapu farmers sell small piles of locally grown pungent red radishes and tiny fragrant coriander beneath the Bhimsenthan Temple, while panipuri sellers occupy the furthest ends of the square. Two women vie for small square patches of ground where lime, ginger, garlic and chilli are sold. The local grocer and his wife sell dried fish, soyabean nuggets, sesame seeds, and ground spices, via India. Fruitsellers from both Bihar and Southern Nepal line the central part of the plaza, their bamboo baskets piled high with pomegranate, apples, junar oranges, bananas, and seasonal delicacies such as jujube, papaya or watermelon.
A few minutes down a lane, there’s a mill that provides freshly ground spices and barley flour. Walk down towards the Krishna Temple, and there’s a sweetshop selling fresh samosas and sweets.
I was born and grew up in this neighborhood. I go to this market every single day to get my vegetables, fruit, and dairy. The butchershop adjoining the temple provides fresh meat for my dog. I love the daily changing scene, the joys of freshly grown produce, the surprise of discovering a new fruit or vegetable I’ve never seen before.
Every vendor always laughs at me when I insist they put my purchases in my cloth or reusable fabric bags. They always try to press polyythene on me, and I always refuse. “The didi who doesn’t take plastic,” one vendor calls me.
The only time I go to the supermarkets is to buy pumpkin seeds for my father (which is only available in a big supermarket, unfortunately.) A closer supermart sells me millet flour, which I use to make dogfood. Otherwise, everything else is sourced from small local shops.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Handigaon was largely inhabited by the Jyapu farming community. Jyapus are the farming caste of the Newari community. The neighborhood still retains enough of the original inhabitants who practice their traditional livelihood to anchor the place to its origins. I often see my elderly neighbors walking busily with big bags of produce in their hands, hurrying to the market. They often save their best wares for me, knowing I appreciate their organic produce (and I pay well, too!) They often share tips with me on rooftop farming—using fish remains to fertilize their soil, for instance.
A new wave of migrants from the hills have entered Handigaon, often destroying the traditional urban structures, and treating the historic neighborhood as a suburban enclave which has destroyed the fabric of urban life. SUVs drive through the historic square, seemingly intent on getting from one place to another with no appreciation for the daily schedule and rhythm of the locals. Increasing also are the numbers of giant motorcycles—shoppers who come to buy vegetables in their noisy motorcycles, polluting tiny lanes and creating massive traffic jams. It is clear that people still appreciate the density and beauty of small scale, urban spaces. Yet their way of getting there shows the arrogance and indifference of modern “developed” society—a driveby mentality in which huge machines rush by at manic speeds, trying to make pedestrians move out of the way fast enough for the shopper to park, block the small lanes, buy their goods, and go on their way home, treating everyone else in that plaza as nuisances. This has made it impossible for the elderly and disabled to take their daily walks. Before I used to see many elderly people walking around the squares. With the advent of the new Loktantric regime, huge numbers of vehicles have swamped the neighborhood, making it impossible for locals to go about their daily business.
For many poor rural migrants living in cramped rooms in the tenements surrounding this plaza, vegetables are often unaffordable due to sky-high prices. A cucumber grown in the Terai is sold to as many as five middlemen before it makes its way to the market, creating huge markups. Unfortunately the government has done nothing to control food prices (with collusion between political leaders and middlemen). It has also done nothing about food adulteration, toxic dyes, injections of questionable chemicals and high applications of pesticide, which often saturate the vegetables.
As a resident of Handigaon, I can buy all my food from small business and local producers. If I am prepared, I could also go entirely plastic-free (although many essential goods like tea, milk and oil now come in plastic packs.)
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Currently in Kathmandu, the emphasis is on food from restaurants, with online delivery companies and startups catering to the upper middle class who are employed and earning good money. People are moving away from locally sourced and locally prepared food to more packaged foods like instant noodles. Children are fed a variety of packaged goods for lunch, with most of them providing poor or no nutrition. The urban middle class is increasingly consuming burgers, pizzas, sausages, fried meat, which are often high in sodium, fats and transfats. The perinnial local favorites of momo and chowmein, sometimes prepared in unhygienic conditions with meat of questionable provenance, can also cause health issues if consumed daily over the long term.
My vision is to see a local food economy which provides locally sourced and locally prepared dal-bhat, the traditional vegan meal of Nepal, at an affordable price for everyone in the city (the rich and poor alike) through a co-op by 2050. I used to study at Brown University, and during my sophomore year I lived in a co-operative housing where we cooked meals communally for 25 people. That was my first experience of learning to cook in the kitchen, and the social, economic and cultural benefits of eating with a group left a lasting impression on me.
The co-op may be one unit, or many, depending upon funding from non-profits, individuals and local and federal government. I see these meals incorporating the best of vegetarian recipes, with rice and lentils as the base, and fresh vegetables, relishes and yogurt as accompanying dishes. Thakali restaurants of Kathmandu already serve these meals at affordable rates. I envision these meals being sold from mobile vans or carts in leaf plates, for those who cannot afford to cook a meal due to water shortages or lack of a kitchen. I often talk to vendors who tell me they are too busy to eat in the mornings, so they go hungry the whole day because they don’t want to eat the oily food served at restaurants. In addition, I would like to see these healthy affordable priced meals delivered to the elderly and disabled at a reduced rate or free of cost, depending upon the income source of the people.
Volunteers on bicycles would deliver a certain number of meals to vulnerable people at a low cost, including for those who may be temporarily recovering from sickness, injuries or hospitalization, or have mobility issues. The technical components would include a database of vulnerable people, including elderly and mobility-impaired, for whom daily meal delivery is necessary. In addition, a database of co-op members and volunteers would also be creatd. The members of the co-op would get a discount for meals. In return, they will volunteer to cook, meal prep and deliver, which is one way we would keep the meal price down. In addition, produce would be sourced directly from farmers, both to support farmers as well as to ensure a fair price.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
The challenges are multiple. First would be the logistical task of setting up this co-op, including membership, rules of the co-op, as well as creating the database of elderly and disabled who need help.
How to ensure impartial inclusion will be a challenge in a country where people, including volunteers, may try to put their own community members first, at the expense of those who may be marginalized and outside social networks. This challenge could be addressed by changing volunteers and ensuring that the delivery is done by different people, who will also check on the people and ensure they are in need of support.
In addition, it may not be easy to build a volunteer base. Food is charged in Nepal, with people preferring to eat in their own communities. Shifting the focus from community tastes and events to a more broader societal network will take some effort and work.
Religious bases like the Sikhs’ langars work well due to the shared religious and cultural heritage of the participants. Some religious events may have to be included (for instance, providing meals on certain festivals or communal food-related events) to attract older people, for instance. Elderly people who need help may not want to accept help, due to perceived notions of impurity in food preparation. Overcoming their biases will also be a challenge, and may require religious elements and diplomacy on the part of those doing the food deliveries.
In addition, the initial setup of kitchen, collecting utensils and kitchen implements for large-scale food preparation, as well as ensuring hygiene will have to be closely monitored and ground rules established if the program is to endure.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
I envision Kathmandu as a city which has a rich food culture of shared communal food networks by 2050. The city takes care of its elderly and disabled. No elderly or disabled person living alone at home would have to face hunger. A network of young volunteers will deliver food in reusable metal containers to their doorstep.
In addition, this co-op will also provide low cost meals to the working class, as well as those who may simply prefer an affordable meal prepared in hygienic ways from a communal kitchen or mobile cart. Instead of eating burgers or pizza, they can pick and choose dal-bhat, their traditional meal. People who work in offices are often too busy to get up early in the morning and cook a full elaborate meal. They will end up eating oily meals due to the lack of options. This co-op would deliver simple meals from mobile vans and carts to people in leaf plates, cutting down on non-biodegradable food waste.
A Solar kitchen akin to the one found in Auroville, Pondicherry, which also serves a large mobile population of visitors, permanent residents and locals, will be established either through support of individuals, non-profits or government. This kitchen will be staffed by co-op members, and food will be prepared daily to be sold as well as distributed for free to those who need it the most. The food will be of the highest standard, with everything prepared fresh daily. Nothing will be wasted—food will be prepared according to estimates of those who’ve signed up that day. Shopping will be done in teams by co-op members and involve locally sourced produce and grains. Co-op members who bring in food they’ve grown from their own kitchen or rooftop gardens can also exchange those for free meals.
I imagine the food co-op as being dynamic, engaged, and flexible. It will have many co-op members who feel ownership over the network and are invested in keeping it operational. They also come there for food and community.
The co-op will work with farmers to source local food in organic ways. The farmers will be paid a fair price, and the co-op will also get produce cheaper than through the market because there won’t be middlemen. By sourcing directly from farmers, and ensuring the vegetables and produce are organic, the co-op will encourage permaculture and organic agriculture.
Because the food will be mostly purchased from farming co-ops, and prepared by co-op members, the cost of preparation can be reduced and the meals sold below market prices. This would make it possible for the elderly and disabled to purchase the meals by themselves. For those who are absolutely living on a minimal income, we aim to serve them free of cost. The money raised from sales will be used to subsidize the free meals. In addition, we will also fundraise from individuals, funders and government agencies.
Like the langar preparation of the Sikhs, we will have a core group of experienced cooks who will prepare the food with the help of volunteers. If economics allows, we will in the future buy a machine to make rotis, for instance, or other bulk food preparation machines. In general, I am in favor of manual preparation rather than machines, but the machines would allow for more food to be prepared in a shorter time.
The food prepared will always follow traditional recipes, with little dairy and no meat. Rice and lentils provide carbohydrates and protein, and they work well together as a vegan combination. Vegetable curry, fresh spinach and an aachar (spicy fermented relish of some sort) is part of this combination. The yogurt would add protein and calcium. Yogurt is expensive in Nepal, so if our budget is modest, we may do away with it. However, dairy is a way of life in Nepal, and its possible to source fresh milk and yogurt from local farmers. The aim is to deliver as full a meal as possible within the constraints of the budget. I envision the meal being sold for Rs.100 ($1) at present day rates. In 2050, the meal should not cost more than this, after inflation.
While I believe animal husbandry and the manure produced is important for the health of the soil, and I think a free range animal like the goat has low impact on the environment, we won’t be serving meat at our co-op due to health and environment, as well as cost, issues. Eggs are important source of protein especially for the elderly, who may not be getting enough nutrition in Nepal, so this maybe a food item to include in the diet, although the conditions of industrial farming in Nepal are often questionable and bring up many health issues. Current practices include giving baby chicks a shot of Depo Provera to fatten them to 3-4 kgs within two weeks. Also many elderly people from vegetarian communities will not eat food if it has been cooked side by side with egg and meat items, so this would be a consideration.
We’d incorporate technology into our project in various ways. First, by creating a database of volunteers and co-op members, who would pay a monthly fee to eat a certain amount of meals with the co-op. These members would also prepare food, distribute meals and in general help with running the co-op. Secondly we would have a database of the elderly and disabled, something that the government of Nepal so far hasn’t invested in pulling together. By creating this list (whose privacy would be strictly protected and available only to trusted co-op members), the co-op would be able to tell which member needs a free meal, for how many times a week, and would be able to account for it during shopping and cooking.
In addition, we would also deliver meals to those who are facing illness, accidents or hospitalizations. I was injured in the 2015 earthquake, and during my stay at the hospital, I was visited by a couple of women carrying a bucket who asked me if I was getting enough to eat, and whether I needed a free meal. This make a deep impression on me—not only did the women look like they came from fairly low income backgrounds, but they also looked like busy mothers and housewives (perhaps small business owners) who had left their own housework behind to focus on helping the needy. Sadly not enough of this energy is tapped in times other than natural disasters. But for the elderly and disabled, everyday can appear to be a disaster, with many people without children or families not knowing when their next meal will come from.
The co-op would also act as a food advocacy network. The members would work to change policy in favor of better market rates for food prices, better distribution methods, and better farm to fork systems.
The co-op would also teach its members to grow their own small amounts of food in urban kitchen or rooftop gardens, and the lessons given would help them to figure out what is the most appropriate agricultural system for their urban houses and plots. In my small garden in Kathmandu, I grow guavas, cucumbers, coriander, green onions, hibiscus (for menstrual tea), curry leaves, taro leaves, aloe vera, rosemary, and basil. My parents had an avocado tree that grew kilogrammes of avocados. They also have bay leaves, mulberries, lime, pomegranate, spinach, green onions, etc. Small amounts of food can be grown even in an urban environment, and with proper training people could produce even more from rooftops, balconies, window-boxes, etc.
Most of all, the co-op would give the members a deep appreciation of locally grown food. It would make them aware of the need to nurture and steward the soil and its health. They would learn about biodiversity and how we’re losing our rich food cultures through the frightening vision of industrial monoculture, where thousands of kilometers of land are sprayed aerially by drones and aeroplanes with toxic pesticides, and food in one continent by lowly paid workers is shipped to another at unseasonable times to satisfy people’s demands. They would grow an appreciation for seasonal foods which haven’t traveled thousands of miles in plastic and preservatives, which currently embody the notion of “luxury foods” in the minds of the aspiring middle class. Anything brightly packed in glossy plastic, no matter how rancid, is thought of as better than simple food prepared from wholesome grains and vegetables found at the local market. People scorn the red radishes with the pungent snap, and they think the small coriander with the powerful scent is less valuable than the giant industrial coriander with no taste. The co-op would work to reverse these perceptions, and bring the farmers back to their rightful place of glory in Kathmandu’s historically sustainable agricultural consciousness.
Kathmandu has also always been a community of communities. No matter what ethnicity people belonged to, food was served communally in families, festivities and weddings. Eating together was a way of life before the fragmentation into nuclear families and suburban housing units. The co-op would try to restore this vision, either though sharing food in a central communal space, or by sharing food prepared communally and distributed to those in need.