My journey with Food for Life – A summary of 30 years of Service

40YEARS-ad-800x800I could hardly imagine Hare Krishna Food for Life being so successful when I first became a volunteer way back in 1984. Back then, I worked as an assistant cook and server at a free food cafe called, Gopals in Parramatta, Australia. That was one of the first free food cafes set up by the Hare Krishna movement in Australia and it was a forerunner to other Food for Life projects throughout Australia.

The Beginning days

prabhupada_bw1In 1974, Srila Prabhupada (1896 – 1977) the founder acharya of ISKCON and the pioneer of the kirtan movement in the West, was alarmed by some commotion outside the window of his room in India. He looked outside to see village children fighting off dogs over scraps of food that had recently been thrown out after a festival feast. The leaf plates still had some rice and curry stuck to them and that was just too much to ignore for these kids. Unfortunately, it was the same for the local street dogs and they wanted those remnants. The children waved sticks and screamed while the dogs sneered with the hair on their backs fully raised. It was war and from the swami’s viewpoint and no one was a winner. He stood there in silence and cried. “How can this be?” he wondered. Feeling guilty that he had just finished his lunch, he called his students to come and see what was happening. “Do you see how hungry those children are?” he told them. “This is a temple of God and where there is God the father there should be no hungry children…No one within a ten-mile radius of our temples should go hungry! Begin feeding these children immediately!”

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Back then the program was called ISKCON Food Relief and it only operated in Mayapur, West Bengal. The yoga students dutifully fed the local people every day and even provided hot meals to stranded villagers when the Ganges river overflowed her banks. A few days later, Srila Prabhupada asked that the program expands to all towns and villages in India. He saw the program as a means to break down barriers and create peace in society.

I am hopeful that if we can widely distribute free foodstuffs to the people of India, by giving it out at our centers as well as by traveling parties to villages, we will win over the whole country and the whole world by this activity on Krishna’s behalf” (SP Letter to Satyajit, March 16, 1974).

Although the swami never officially founded ISKCON Food Relief, the precursor to Food for Life, he was indeed the inspiration behind it with these words and many other instructions he gave to his students.

In 1979, however, the project took on a new direction with the opening of a small soup kitchen in Sydney, Australia leading the way.

A new branding

FFLlogoFrom the back entrance of the ISKCON temple in Kings Cross (Sydney), Australia, Krishna monks began serving hot meals to the homeless. Soon hundreds of people were lining up daily and the local news began reporting on it. It was a sensation at the time because the Krishna devotees were badly misunderstood in Australia, often being arrested for singing on the streets; so this new spotlight of good feelings towards them took everyone by surprise.  The communications director for ISKCON, Mukunda das noted the success and the improved public perception of the members and went on a worldwide campaign to encourage the same in every temple in ISKCON. FFLSydney1980But the first order of business was to rebrand the program to something more memorable; something less religious — after all what the program stood for was to show compassion for all living beings. The name ISKCON Food Relief did not exactly carry that message so well, so he got together with the head of ISKCON Television, David Shapiro (Nrsimhananda Das) and the “Aussie Einstein,” Yasomatinandana Das to brainstorm a new brand. Sitting in a pyramid temple in California they came up with the new brand, Hare Krishna Food for Life, with the tag line: Feeding the Hungry Worldwide.

The following is a 7-minute news clip on Food for Life in Sydney.

The new program with some basic guidelines in place soon spread throughout the USA and Western Europe.  By the time I started volunteering in 1984 the project was pretty well established in most developed countries, however,  by the late 80s many of these programs had faded, either due to a lack of funding, professional management or abuse by  some unscrupulous fundraisers, causing some programs, like the one in New York to close down completely.

Food for Life Newsletter

newsletter-adBy 1989, I started to focus on the power of the Food for Life project to educate people on the basic principles of spirituality and morality. More than simply a food relief for poor people, I saw Food for Life as a way to unite people in a spirit of family. Food for Life was all about reviving the ancient culture of spiritual hospitality that was so famous in India. By 1990, I fully embraced this concept and began writing about it in my Food for Life Newsletter that went out to volunteers throughout Australia. I furiously studied all of what Srila Prabhupada said about this ancient practice of prasadam distribution and learned that he had actually been promoting it ever since he set foot in America in 1966!

Everywhere. In the hospitals, charitable societies, Industrial places, everywhere—distribute this prasada and chant this Hare Krishna. Just see what is the result. You want peace? These are the processes of peace.” (SP lecture, New York December 16, 1966)

“What had happened to this clear message” I wondered.

Then in 1991, Mukunda who was now a swami encouraged me to write my FFL Newsletter for the worldwide volunteer community, sharing what I had learned from studying Prabhupada’s teachings and in my own experience with Food for Life, some of which included getting endorsements for Food for Life from influential political leaders, celebrities and news media. Below I invited all the leading dignitaries, including chief of police, president of the chamber of commerce, mayor of Sydney and local MP, Ms. Clover Moore who is currently the very popular mayor of Sydney.

The serving of the 2 millionth meal by Food for Life Sydney (1991)

The serving of the 2 millionth meal by Food for Life Sydney (1991)

I used a Mac Plus computer to design the Newsletter, then pasted it up, printed it and mailed out hundreds of copies around the world using my own money. By 1992, I had revived enthusiasm in the Food for Life project and inspired a whole new generation of volunteers that were coming out of the Eastern European countries, like Russia, Georgia, Latvia and Slovenia, etc.

priya_food-250nzLeaving Australia

Then in 1993, I left Australia to fuel this new momentum in Food for Life, first landing in India, the home of the project and then Russia, where I did a 6-month tour of the continent; at one point visiting 44 cities in just two months. That adventure in itself is a whole book. It was at that time that I worked on the first edition of the Food for Life Training Manual. Surprisingly, the program was now officially 19 years old, but no one had bothered to write up a training manual. I took on the task with enthusiasm. By 1994, my 200-page Training manual was complete. This new book provided the guidance, insight and philosophical grounding that Food for Life volunteers needed in an ISKCON culture that had been overrun with dry intellectuals. Food for Life was something that translated the deep philosophical tenants of the culture in practical terms. We are all spirit; we are all family; all living beings are children of God and our spiritual dharma is unconditional loving service. Since food is the centre of every culture, serving delicious meals with love was the most efficient way to express that understanding and people loved it!

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Food for Life in Russia (1993)

Speaking at the opening of a new Food for Life centre in Russia (1993)

Speaking at the opening of a new Food for Life centre in Russia (1993)

Hare Krishna Food for Life continued to expand throughout the 90s under various new names, simply because in some countries, the name Food for Life did not make sense. So for example, in Armenia, the program was called, “Bread for Life” and in Lithuania, it was called, “Food for Soul”. In South America, “Alimentos Para La Vida” worked well. The branding may have been adjusted, but what remained consistent was the focus of the program — that everyone get a chance to eat blessed food (prasadam*).

One of the highlights of those tours to the Former Soviet were visiting volunteers in Sukhumi, Georgia (1993) and then later in Chechnya (1995) where I witnessed FFL volunteers putting their lives on the line to serve hot meals to refugees of the wars taking place there. During my time in Moscow I visited all the major western media offices and eventually our story was told in a page 4 article in the New York Times (See: KRISHNAS BAKE BREAD IN ONE OF RUSSIA’S BROKEN CITIES).

PrasadamDas250Prasadam Das

Around this time, our Mascot, Prasadam Das (Servant of Prasadam) was born. We wanted to convey a sense of fun with our image without characterising him as a Hare Krishna volunteer, although even then, we couldn’t help ourselves giving him a tuft of hair (sikha) and adorning his chef hat with the sacred tilak symbol. But it was subtle and he did have pants on and not an Indian dhoti.

In 1996, while still a monk, I produced the first Food for Life music CD with the aim of immortalising our message in sound. Through the lyrics of those songs I tried to share my understanding of what Srila Prabhupada envisioned, however, the message of the charity and indeed myself were still very much influenced by my Hare Krishna roots. I knew something was just not right and although done sincerely, it missed the mark with most people. What was needed was something more accessible; something universal and something that resonated with everyone from all walks of life.

Teach a man how to fish

During the late 90s, I spoke at Vegetarian conferences around the world about the work of Food for Life and what it stood for. I would also typically give a presentation on the spiritual aspect of Food for Life and teach people about the benefits of offering their food to God as a way to nourish their mind and spirit too. It was during this time in my life I thought deeply about the words of Srila Prabhupada, “Everyone should get a chance to take prasadam.” I thought if there are only so many of us volunteers, how will it be possible to give everyone in the world the experience of this beautiful “love” food? And then it hit me…

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This famous maxim rang true for me and set me on a whole new course in my Food for Life career. Teaching people about the ancient Hindu tradition of offering food to the Gods was a nice addition to my Food for Life presentations, but for most people, it just didn’t sit right with them. After all, they were not Hindus and many of them had lost all faith in the concept of a personal form of God. To offer food was a very big jump in faith. Solving this problem became a constant meditation for me into the new Millennium. What was needed, I surmised, was a completely non-sectarian approach to solving this riddle.

In 1995, after visiting about 30 countries in two years, I made Washington DC my base and with the help of Mukunda Goswami we established Food for Life Global to serve as the official headquarters for all Food for Life projects around the world. The new charity would establish standards and provide the guidance, training and inspiration needed to push the program on. Unexpectedly, we also became the central office for emergency relief coordination. As a result, I have been involved, in some way or another, with every major relief effort of Food for Life over the last 20 years.

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Paul Turner serving children after the 2004 Tsunami in Sri Lanka

Midday Meal Program

By the early 2000s, there was a resurgence in the Food for Life program in India. This was partly due to the tremendous economic boom taking place in India with the expansion of the Internet. People had much more money now and they wanted to spend it. The Indian government was also flush with cash and so the president of India declared that all children in India must get a free lunch provided by the government.

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ISKCON temples in India formed a new organisation, ISKCON Food Relief Foundation, aka “Food for Life Annamrita” to also participate in the Indian Government’s Midday Meal initiative. Over the next 10 years, both foundations have continued to raise the bar of professionalism and efficiency, with each receiving numerous awards and accolades from the Media, Government and United Nations. Both foundations, which are the two principle affiliates of Food for Life Global, now each serves up to 1.3 million meals daily!

The Great Tsunami of 2004

The traveling monk, Indradyumna Swami and Paul handing out hot packaged meals in Sri Lanka.

The traveling monk, Indradyumna Swami and Paul handing out hot packaged meals in Sri Lanka.

While employed with the World Bank as a web developer I continued my volunteer work for Food for Life Global, working mostly from my office at home. However, after news of the devastating tsunami spread across the Internet, I began getting calls from donors and volunteers asking FFLG to respond. This event was unprecedented and so it would require an unprecedented response. With the help of the Traveling Monk Indradyumna Swami, we devised a plan to provide hot meals to survivors in Sri Lanka. Over the next week, I started promoting Food for Life’s plan to respond and asked for donations and volunteers. Well, nothing could prepare me for what happened next. We literally got over 500 volunteer applications from people of all walks of life, police officers, military vets, nurses, doctors, film directors, actors, dancers, you name it — I was overwhelmed. Soon tens of thousand of dollars in donations started pouring in and so we now had people and money to actually execute our plan.

Over the next four months, more than 50 volunteers from around the world worked with Food for Life Global cooking vegan meals on firewood and distributing them to villagers all across the island. The Sri Lankan military and Red Cross also collaborated with FFLG. Over the next 8 years, Food for Life Global responded to many other natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the Tsunami that hit Japan and the earthquake in Haiti.

FOOD YOGA – Food for Life 2.0

science.naturalnews.comFOOD-YOGA-3dBook300pxIn 2010, I started a new personal journey. Numerologically it was a year 9, meaning I was basically wrapping up all that had transpired over the last 9 years. And let me tell you, although I certainly did have some nice successes with Food for Life, including overseeing Food for Life’s relief efforts in Haiti, on a personal level it was challenging. I decided to take a fresh look at the riddle of how to give everyone a chance to take prasadam and what I discovered was the major obstacle in realising that idea was bringing people to:

1: Give a damn;

2: Accept that there is indeed a Supreme Intelligence behind the creation and that that powerful Creative Force has a form and personality.

So the book I was to write needed to address these two points. I started my quest in a 24-hour New York cafe called Yaffa, working all night long, researching and typing as I drank rose petal tea. Over the next 18 months, my new book FOOD YOGA – Nourishing Body, Mind & Soultook shape, going through 30 revisions. I tried to build my presentation using logic, science and references from a variety of spiritual sources, just so that it was clear that I was not favouring Hinduism, nor trying to convert anyone to a Hare Krishna viewpoint. What I wanted was for my readers to embrace the importance of food on their spiritual quest and to adopt what I now called, “The Food Offering Meditation.” The book essentially was just building up to that one thing beginning with learning to see the presence of God in our day to day lives and appreciating the unconditional love of Mother Nature.

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However, I also saw food yoga as the natural evolution of Food for Life, “the upgrade,” if you will, and how it was important that I be honest and share my experience as a monk and volunteer of the organisation — because in a sense my life was all about food yoga. In the end, my principal desire was to fulfil the ideal of Srila Prabhupada and thus help to expand Food for Life far beyond the limitations of any one religious organisation to that of a social revolution for unity, peace and prosperity with food as the preferred “weapon” of choice!

This comment by Srila Prabhupada set the tone for a new direction and marketing message for Food for Life:

Simply by the liberal distribution of prasada and sankirtana, the whole world can become peaceful and prosperous.” (Srimad Bhagavatam Purport, Verse: 4.12.10).

Food for Life was not a food relief, but rather an organisation focused on creating peace and prosperity in the world, which can only be possible when we have true equality. To position ourselves in the public eye as such we changed out tag line to Uniting the World through Pure Food.

As a supplement to this new plan I also wrote a book called, “How to Build a Successful Food Relief specifically for people outside the Hindu and/or Krishna tradition and thus opened the door for collaboration beyond religious dogma and bias. However, FOOD YOGA – Nourishing Body, Mind and Soul, was really the essence of my meditation all these years.

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Food Yoga Tour and the message of Unity