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Food for the soul

Krishna Food Relief program in Fishtown serves up free, vegan meals to those in need.

Feed the need: Mantra Lounge volunteers Aarti Rhoda and Jude Sheppard run the Krishna Food Relief program that provides 100 meals to those in need every Sunday. PHOTO COURTESY OF AARTI KHODA

Next month will mark 12 months since COVID-19 was declared a national pandemic, which also signifies a more positive anniversary: one whole year since Krishna’s Food Relief program started preparing meals on a weekly basis.

An affiliate of the nonprofit Food for Life Global, the two-person, volunteer initiative in Fishtown is based out of Mantra Lounge, a nonprofit yoga and meditation studio in Fishtown that opened about four and a half years ago.

Port Richmond native Jude Sheppard and Mantra Lounge manager Aarti Khoda have spent their Sundays since the pandemic started cooking, driving around, dropping off and handing out about 100 vegan meals each week.

“We’ve always supported people if they came out for meals,” Khoda said. “But, when the pandemic hit, realizing the amount of food insecurity in the city, we decided to change gears and really started focusing on the Food for Life initiative, bringing free meals to people.”

Currently, their day starts in the kitchen around 8 a.m. and wraps up back at Mantra Lounge, 312 E. Girard Ave., around 5 p.m.

The duo drives to homeless shelters, where they hand out the complimentary meals.

After everyone in need of a meal is served, they pack up and drive around the city handing out any remaining meals to homeless individuals. 

During summer months, they set up distribution sites at Malcolm X Park, 46th Street station, Mantra Lounge and Tent City, and distributed meals to police and first responders.

The hope is to transition to having individuals pick up meals at Mantra Lounge every Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“It’s difficult for people to actually come forward and say that they’re in need, so, we’ve just been preparing meals and taking them to homeless shelters,” Sheppard said. “We’re hoping to eventually just have anyone in need just come here on Sundays and the beginning part, just to take meals. We’re trying to gain momentum so we’ll be giving meals to anyone in need.”

And, while providing healthy food to individuals is the short-term goal, it doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what Sheppard and Khoda ultimately hope to achieve.

“In terms of long-term visions, there is a desire to help people. Not just stop the buck at actually giving them a plate, but we want to teach them how to live healthy and provide that mentorship,” Khoda said. “There’s a hope that we will be able to teach them how to cook and eat healthy. So, we want to build a relationship and they can become ambassadors and we can actually see a change in the city.”

Their actions and the initiative is inspired by the ancient philosophy and teachings of Bhagavad Gita, which shapes the programming at Mantra Lounge.

“Our philosophy is based on the Bhagavad Gita, the primary teaching which is, there is a soul in every living entity including all the living animals and everyone deserves respect and a right to live. And, vegan food is very healthy. There are so many health issues you see disappear when you switch your diet,” Khoda said. “If we want our planet as long as we hope for, a vegan diet is the way to go forward. Mostly, we don’t encourage animal slaughter. Out of compassion, it’s our philosophy and healthy.”

Food for the soul: The Krishna Food Relief program serves approximately 100 complimentary, vegan meals each Sunday to those in need throughout the city. PHOTO: AARTI KHODA

“We’re trying to connect with people in the community to encourage them to uplift their consciousness,” Sheppard added. “It’s health and environment sustainability.”

And, while feeding people is both a physical and spiritual need they hope to fulfill, it’s certainly not free to achieve.

Sheppard and Khoda rely on donations and often cover costs out of pocket and with support from Mantra Lounge.

It costs about $2,000 to cover a month’s supply of meals.

“Sometimes, we have some funding, sometimes we have no funding,” Khoda said. “We just thought, ‘Let’s get started, the city needs it, and the rest will be provided.’ ”

In addition to donations, Sheppard and Khoda are always open to volunteers to expand their outreach.

“The more people we have here involved, the more people we can feed,” Sheppard said. “Even if people can come and pick up the food and just take it to people, that’s one of the biggest helps for us. Distribution is a big thing we need help with. To not see anyone go hungry in Philadelphia or around us is the goal.”

With more volunteers comes more dreams for the future, including offering more meals each week and creating a program to partner with schools.

“If we have the funding and the resources, we would like to do it more than weekly,” Khoda said. “It’d be nice to have a team of volunteers to help us cook and deliver the food. We really want to train people to do this and reach as many people in the city as possible. We really don’t want to turn anyone away from our doors.”

Krishna’s Food Relief program operates on Sundays, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Donations for the Food for Life initiative in Fishtown can be sent via Venmo @Mantralounge, Cashapp $Mantralounge, or Paypal @ bhaktiphilly@gmail.com.

To reserve Sunday meals or volunteer, text 215-834-8043.

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