When I first heard about Karma Kitchen, I didn’t believe that it was real. Free Indian food? Completely run by volunteers? How was this possible? I wondered whether it was for the misfortunate, people experiencing homelessness or other people in distress. What I’ve come to appreciate about Karma Kitchen’s approach is that we are all in need of healing, community and maybe even a bit of a radical shift in how we see the world.
Karma Kitchen came to DC from Berkeley and is a social experiment in “paying it forward,” generosity and a gift economy. This endeavor is based on principles of moving from a mindset of scarcity to one of abundance, from isolation to community and from transaction to trust.
It is true that our planet holds enough resources, and surely enough food, that if they were better distributed, all who are hungry could come and eat. It is also true that although we have endless forms of communication today, more and more people feel isolated and alone. We are missing much of the human connection and interaction that we all need to stay healthy, happy and whole.
So how does it work? In a way, it’s truly something you have to experience for yourself, whether as a guest or as a volunteer. The last Sunday of each month, strangers come together to greet, serve and interact with other strangers…but they don’t stay strangers for long. A seemingly magical transformation occurs when money and work are taken out of the equation.
Local restaurants donate space and chef expertise. In DC, Karma Kitchen currently runs out of the Himalayan Heritage Restaurant in Adams Morgan. The food is paid for with each month’s donations, and the labor, including greeting, serving, bussing and bartending, is all taken care of by volunteers. No server you meet will ever be more delighted that you have asked for a refill of food, beverage, naan or dessert!
At the end of a meal, guests receive a bill for $0.00. It’s not that the meal is free, but rather that it has been paid for by the generosity of others who came for previous meals. You are able to leave a donation for any amount with which you are comfortable, or you can choose to repay the generosity into the world in any way you choose.
And it works! It’s a genuine gift economy that has sustained itself in DC for over five years with enough surplus to help start a Chicago Karma Kitchen and to support other nonprofit efforts, such as relief aid in Haiti.
As we come out of the period of High Holidays and Days of Awe, memories of the past year’s events come to mind: both the joyful and dreadful, memories of happiness and togetherness and of fear and deep disappointment. As we settle into the new year, I hope we can model ourselves a bit more after Karma Kitchen and make this a year of abundance, community and trust.
To volunteer or learn more about Karma Kitchen, please visit their website.
Top photo: Volunteers gather after every Karma Kitchen shift to share stories and their experiences of the day.