Malaysian Soup Kitchens Driven To Feed The Poor Despite All Obstacles

Text by Susan Tam
Photos by Kamal Sellehuddin

Malaysia’s soup kitchens are strong-willed and determined to feed the poor, despite facing food wastage, funding issues and a government ban on their operations.

This drive was observed amongst several soup kitchens based in Kuala Lumpur, as well as around the surrounding areas of the Klang Valley.

“We want to keep doing this to help the poor, it gives us a sense of satisfaction that we are helping the community,” shares Kechara Soup Kitchen (Kechara) treasurer Felicia Yeoh.

Meanwhile, Assumption Soup Kitchen’s (Assumption) Alice Massang says the poor must be respected, a value strongly observed amongst the soup kitchen volunteers. “At our serving hall, we offer tables and chairs with proper cutlery so beneficiaries can ‘eat in dignity’.”

These soup kitchens are standing firm to their commitment despite the lack of clarity in government policies over such operations.

Last July, the Malaysian government restricted soup kitchens from operating within a two-kilometre radius of Lot 10, a major shopping mall located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.

The Federal Territories Ministry set the ban, citing reasons that soup kitchens encouraged people to remain jobless and homeless. The policy was supported by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, which argued that tourists were taking advantage of the soup kitchens’ generosity.

Soup kitchens and other non-profit organisations strongly protested this policy, calling it ‘cruel and ineffective’. The organisers of these feeding programmes defied government orders and continued helping the poor. Soon after, public outcry pressured the government to postpone the ban.

City Hall statistics show that there are up to 2,000 people living on the streets in Kuala Lumpur while the government’s Economic Planning Unit finds that more than 2 per cent of Malaysian households are earning less than RM1,000 a month. Nearly 3 million households in Malaysia are poor.

In Kuala Lumpur and other urban areas, households earning less than RM3,000 a month are categorised as the urban poor, and these homes are made up of single parents, marginalised groups or even large families struggling to cope with rising costs while living in the city.

Soup kitchens provide a necessary service for this people, offering a hot and nutritious meal for those who need it the most.

8b. Assumption soup kitchen volunteers preparing food (1)

Set up in 2006, Kechara’s operates on Saturdays, giving free meals to the homeless community, urban poor and street children. The team, made up of nearly 100 volunteers head out to Sentul, Chow Kit, Dang Wangi and Keramat to set up temporary stations and carry out their outreach activities. Aside from food, the team also provides basic medical check-ups.

Yeoh explains that the team gives away fruit, water and about 1,200 packets of food which can be either a vegetarian meal or an egg burger. “Burgers are given to some of the homeless who may be still sleeping, and it can keep for a little while. So when they wake up they can have a good meal.”

Among the challenges faced by soup kitchens include wastage, she says. Yeoh finds that at times the homeless are deterred from getting a hot meal because local councils are conducting raids to either detain them or carry out identity card checks.

“City Hall will carry out operations and detain the homeless, but somehow they (the homeless) know in advance and go into hiding,” she says. And when they ‘disappear’ from the streets, much of the food goes to waste.

She adds that there was no way of knowing about these operations in advance because that would help soup kitchens plan their distribution.

Some of these people living on the streets may have criminal convictions or are without identification documents. While they are registered with Kechara, many of them flee from authorities and avoid being questioned during any government operation.

Malaysia’s Destitute Persons Act 1977 prohibits vagrancy and is often used in operations to target begging syndicates or control people living on the streets. Activists have long argued that homelessness is not solved by ‘clearing the street of vagrants,’ but call for a more holistic approach to help this community.

Food wastage may also occur during festive seasons, shared another soup kitchen volunteer who wanted to remain anonymous.

“Take for an example, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, many different bodies or even politicians decide to feed the poor, either by giving away meals or distributing packed food for the community.”

This leads to many more options for the homeless and much food again goes to waste owing to the duplication in resources. He says existing soup kitchens welcome more feeding initiatives, but blames the lack of coordination by regulatory bodies to ensure that the operations complement existing efforts.

For Massang, team leader of the Assumption Soup Kitchen, advising the beneficiaries about food wastage is important to prevent throwing away uneaten portion of meals.

“We want to discourage wastage. We will always tell them (the beneficiaries), only when they want they come and take again (second helping),” she explains. This helps Massang and team ensure that they have enough to reach out to more people who need a good meal.

Assumption’s initiative was started five years ago as part of the Assumption Church’s service to feed the poor. Operating twice a week, the volunteers prepare close to 500 meals for distribution and to serve at the hall behind the church in Petaling Jaya.

Areas in Desa Mentari and PJU in Old Klang Road are their distribution points where volunteers give out food to single mothers, the urban poor, the homeless as well as drug addicts. Those who head to their hall for lunch are made up of council workers, migrant workers, and sometimes beggars. The volunteers conduct census regularly to ensure deserving families receive the meals.

Meals are made up of chicken rendang or fish, sometimes eggs or even vegetarian dishes with fruit and drink to ensure that the beneficiaries receive a nourishing meal.

And like most non-profit organisations, funding is an issue. Assumption’s volunteer Josephine Fonseka points out that having a consistent amount of donations helps them to plan meals and provide more for the poor. “But we make adjustments when funds are low, offering vegetarian options or a simpler menu.”

Generally there is no funding from the local council, explains Massang, but Members of Parliament do occasionally offer financial support.

“We still do this because we call it our PSR – Personal Social Responsibility – to help those unable to feed themselves or their families,” says Massang.

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