Lebanon is running out of food. One chef-turned-philanthropist is responding with ovens. If successful, these could be sent out to refugee camps everywhere.
“This bit of technology that is centuries old can be a gift from Lebanon to the world,” says James Gomez Thompson, a chef who worked alongside Nigel Slater before starting the Great Oven project in Lebanon.
The idea is simple, says Thompson, who started the project in 2018, long before the Beirut blast on 4 August: Build an oven, teach people how to use it, supply the food, and suddenly you have a community feeding itself, healthily. “We’re in the business of handing out fishing rods rather than fish.”
At the ovens in Beirut, grandmothers dust off family recipes and children help prepare them. One oven can feed up to 1,000 people a day, estimates Thompson. Vegetable stews are stables, though mac-and-cheese and katsu curries are popular when supplies allow them. “Its the biggest game of ready-steady-cook you can imagine,” says Thompson.
But nothing is that simple in a country where food prices have increased 367% in a year and there is no government. From their headquarters in an ruined nightclub near Beirut’s port, Thompson and the team behind The Great Oven have to cajole food banks and farmers to spare much needed supplies, and then set up these three-ton beasts in shattered communities.
Until now Thompson has self funded the project but has just launched a fundraising effort to reach £100,000 ($132,110). In it, he stresses the urgency, “with media fatigue setting in and many temporary relief efforts already withdrawing.”
Aid agencies, including UNICEF, have recently warned that not enough aid is flowing into Lebanon. A donor conference originally scheduled for October has just been pushed back to November.
Food is a critical part of this. The World Food Programme has said the number of people facing hunger could double from 130 million to 265 million. Half the children in Lebanon already do not get enough food, according to Save the Children.
Sanitation and shelter are also major issues facing the residents of Beirut as winter looms and aid agencies chase a drying pool of donor funds. Local organisations are receiving less that 1% of available humanitarian funding says NeedsList.
It is perhaps telling of the situation that the first Great Oven was re-gifted from a Syrian refugee camp back to Beirut following the port explosion.
The idea of a communal oven is, of course, not a new one (ancient Middle Eastern cities are littered with centuries-old communal ovens), but putting one into a refugee camp is.
And if it works in Beirut then why not elsewhere? The Norwegian Refugee Council has muted an interest in sending these Lebanese ovens to Venezuelan refugees stuck at the Colombian border, says Thomson. “The idea of sponsoring an oven has come about.”
‘Poverty Porn’ No Longer Works
Good food sells in restaurants so why not in the aid world? The CookForSyria campaign raised over £120,000 ($158,533) for aid in Syria from households and restaurants around the world hosting supper clubs with Syrian food.
Oenophiles are also being urged to buy Lebanese wine to support the nation’s failing economy.
“Poverty porn” is overdone by aid agencies, Thomson believes. Donors feel better about putting their money towards something beautiful rather than being plied by guilt-ridden advertising campaigns.
But he hopes the idea of a community oven, which can supply healthy dishes to those in need whilst teaching culinary skills, will appeal to a wider pool of philanthropists.
“I dream of putting ovens in every refugee camp,” says Thomson. “But inner cities in Europe and the U.S. can benefit as well. I envisage seeing an oven in youth centres in the U.K.”
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