If I had a bottle of wine for every good idea I’ve had or heard in a pub, I’d need a pretty big cellar. There is something innately Irish about setting the world to rights over a few drinks. Creativity flows, innovation is at its best, and a sense of altruism pervades. And, it would seem, that the same thing happens in Hungary, with Hungarians.
I was introduced to Máté a couple of weeks ago down on Klauzál tér, in a little pub called Kisüzem (small business). It was Sunday, about 1pm. Inside, volunteers were putting food parcels together. Outside, in the park across the road, scores of people hung around waiting for the 2pm distribution. Each Sunday, about 200 to 250 of the city’s needy ‒ some homeless, some not ‒ are fed hot, restaurant-quality food, prepared by volunteer chefs from restaurants in the area.
At the heart of Budapest’s night life, about 40 or so collection jars for the project – Heti betevő (a rather clever modification of the idea of ‘daily bread’) – can be found in bars up and down Kazinczy and in the surrounding VIIth district. All money collected buys the much-needed ingredients, and much more food is donated.
It all started last Christmas, over a few drinks. Máté and some friends were in the pub one night, talking about how much money they spent on partying and enjoying themselves while next to them others were going hungry. One of them, a chef, said that he could cook some hot dinners if others would organise distribution. Instead of being logged as a nice thought, one that would languish with all the other good ideas inspired by palinka and beer, this one took hold. Just one week later, they were in business. It took just seven days to make it happen.
They have a ticketing system. They figure out how many meals they can make up and then issue a corresponding number of tickets at noon. The food is distributed two hours later. The group self-organises. There’s no trouble, no pushing and shoving, no getting out of line. For many, their lives have an institutional feel – they’re used to obeying rules, queuing up, waiting. Each person in line had a story. Their journey to Klauzál tér wasn’t one they chose. Life and circumstances dictated. A mother with seven children, two with Down’s syndrome. An elderly couple finding it difficult to survive on their meagre pensions. A youngish man with a vacant stare that looked into another world. A quiet dignity pervaded.
Volunteers serve those in need and some of the volunteers are also on the receiving side. That ownership is important for everyone. What is also important is that the food is good – high quality. We’re not talking leftovers and stuff that has reached its sell-by date; we’re talking restaurant-quality meals prepared with the freshest of ingredients by the finest of chefs. About 30 volunteers have been involved from the start. Another hundred or so drop by every now and then to help out. I saw some faces I might have recognised had I been more up on who’s who in this town. It was good to see those with plenty taking time to help those with not nearly enough. It was heartening to see that people are engaged, that people care.
There are other such initiatives in town. The Budapest Bike Maffia distributes foods on wheels. Food not Bombs distributes food on Saturdays over on Boráros tér in the IXth district. They all cooperate on fundraising activities and learn from each other’s experiences. If other districts need the same, the lads at Heti betevő are happy to help replicate. Their system works. To donate, check their FB page http://bit.ly/perselyek
First published in the Budapest Times 7 November 2014