Since it opened in July 2011, Lha Community Soup Kitchen has served low-cost, nutritious meals to approximately 250 people from McLeod Ganj’s Tibetan refugee community. Lunches are served to between 50 and 55 people Monday through Friday. Most users (85%) report that they usually come to five meals per week, showing a consistent need for this service. A majority (89%) pays 15 rupees for lunch, while 11% do not pay. Users choose whether to pay or not, based on their ability.
In June 2013, a survey was given to determine how successful the project was, and if any changes should to be made. The findings revealed that Lha was in fact offering beneficial services to people in need of them.
A second survey with similar, but updated, questions was administered in November 2014. Since providing and educating people about nutritious foods are two of Lha’s major goals for the soup kitchen, a greater focus was placed on nutrition in the 2014 survey. 54 Community Kitchen users completed the survey. It was verified that only 3 of these people also took last year’s survey, so it is not possible to attribute changes in habits to attendance at soup kitchen meals. Changes could result purely from it being a different group of people. Some basic findings were that all users were born in Tibet, a slight majority of 56% were born in Tibet’s Kham province, 76% are between 21 and 40 years old, and more than two thirds are male. Married people (15%), single people (46%), monks (35%), and nuns (4%) all come to Lha’s Community Kitchen. Including nuns and monks, a total of 85% of users are single, and 76% of users live alone, suggesting that most users have little or no financial support beyond their own income, and also that they may have difficulty cooking because they have little or no help.
The food served at Lha Community Kitchen is vegetarian and nutritious. Ingredients are fresh and local. Cooked vegetable side dishes are served every day, fruits three days per week, and raw vegetable side dishes on the two days fruits are not served. Foods high in vegetable protein–dal, tofu, and beans–are provided three times a week. Hot and cold filtered water is always available. All vegetables are washed in filtered water and the kitchen is kept very clean.
After asking what soup kitchen users usually eat for breakfast and dinner, it was discovered that carbohydrates likely make up a large portion of what they eat in general. Tsampa (which 70% of users eat) and bread (61%) are extremely popular breakfast foods. 50 total users, or 93%, eat noodles, thukpa, or thenthuk for dinner regularly. 44% of users typically eat rice. A lot of carbohydrates are also served at Community Kitchen lunches, in the form of rice, noodles, and some potatoes. However, there are always vegetables or legumes (beans, dal,and tofu), and some fruit, served alongside them. Most (83%) of Lha soup kitchen users consume between 1 and 2 cups of vegetables per day, a moderate amount. It is important that Lha provides vegetables since they are expensive in McLeod Ganj, and otherwise, the typical amount would probably drop from 1-2 cups to 0-1 cups. The servings of fruit Community Kitchen users usually eat per week– in addition to those served at the soup kitchen–varies quite a bit from person to person. Overall, the amount of fruits consumed increased decently between 2013 and 2014, though 67% eat 4 servings or fewer. Of those who eat less than 10 servings of fruit per week, 70% reported that this is because fruit is too expensive. Looking at the amount of vegetables, fruits, and carbohydrates in people’s diets, it can be concluded that Lha’s soup kitchen meals provide an important source of fruits and vegetables users. Nearly all users (96%) agree that the lunches are beneficial to their health. 52% see Lha Community Kitchen as extremely beneficial for health, 31% as very beneficial, and 13% as beneficial.
The diet of Tibetan refugees has had to be adjusted in India. In high altitude areas of Tibet, where many Tibetans live, it is difficult to grow fruits and vegetables, though accessibility has improved with the introduction of Chinese greenhouse operations. Still, consumption of vegetables is higher on average in India than it was in Tibet, while fruit consumption has not changed much due to the high cost and unfamiliarity. 78% of Lha soup kitchen users state that their diet has changed; 20% mentioned the decrease in meat consumption and 15% the increase in vegetable consumption. Some reasons for eating less meat are a change in the type of meat available (no yak meat), the high expense, and unhygienic meat processing practices (Prosalika). It is important to understand diet history when helping people to improve their diets. The new diet benefits some people, but not others. 15% of users say the change in diet improved their health and 15% say it hurt their health.
While the number of Lha Community Kitchen users with health problems has dropped from 51% to 41% since 2013, 50% of these users report having stomach problems. The high standard of hygiene in the kitchen and use of filtered water in the foods ought to improve the health of these individuals. Also, very little spices and no MSG (flavor enhancer) are put into the food.
From a financial standpoint, users of Lha’s soup kitchen need the free or low-cost meals provided. 91% of users are unemployed and 17% are on CTA’s poverty list. In one area, the users in 2014 are in a slightly better financial situation compared to last year’s users. 39% receive financial support from family, friend(s), or sponsor(s), and 71% of these people receive between 2500 and 5000 rupees per month. Even so, since a large majority of users are unemployed, the support users receive still tends to add up to a low income. A large majority of users, 87%, say financial problems are a main reason why they come to the soup kitchen.
There are a variety of benefits users experience from coming to Lha’s soup kitchen, as can be seen in the graph on this topic. Comments from users were almost all positive. One user wrote, “Thank you, Lha Soup Kitchen, from the core of my heart. The food you serve us is very healthy and helpful. It saves us money and keeps us healthier. Thank you and keep it up.” Someone else said, “Lha is an example for our community.”
Another user wrote, “Lha community is very important for me because it saves money and time, since food and accommodation in Dharamsala are very expensive. Although I get the chance to study here, it is very difficult to stay here, and the soup kitchen makes that easier.” This comment illustrates how Lha’s soup kitchen also improves its educational services. Education is important since 54% of users have no or very little formal education (5th grade or lower). When asked the question, “What is your most important concern at this time?” education was the leading reason, with 56%. 85% of users are Lha students, up from 69% in 2013.
The 2014 survey was administered by Phoebe Prosalika from Greece (BA in Nutrition) and Olivia Ersek from the United States. This report is written by Olivia Ersek.