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Homeless Veggie Dinners: “We use food as an excuse to bring people together”

Open to everyone - Homeless Veggie Dinners has been plating up free meals since 2010. Now the monthly dinner is back, bringing together Berlin residents from all walks of life.

Photo: Makar Artemev

It’s a mild February night at 6pm, and already a dozen people are gathered in front of an unassuming Kreuzberg community centre. It’s been set up like a restaurant, with communal tables. There is – like always – a vegan vegetable soup, and two choices of mains: a pumpkin-cabbage curry with rice and a ratatouille over pasta. All vegan, flavourful and filling, and with a fresh salad on the side. There is a choice of two desserts as well, a vegan zucchini-chocolate cake and a vegetarian sweet potato pie. And it’s all free.

This is Homeless Veggie Dinners – though, despite its name, it’s open to anyone: the less fortunate, but also those who have a roof over their heads, a stable income and access to a balanced diet.  For one night a month, these Berliners come together to enjoy a hot meal in each other’s company.

“We use food as an excuse to bring people together,” says founder Dario Adamic, an English teacher by day, a basketball coach by evening and a music producer by night. “Everybody eats together and has interactions with people they normally wouldn’t meet,” adds kitchen manager and head chef June Marie.

The number of homeless people across Germany has skyrocketed in the past couple of years

Adamic, originally from Croatia, created Homeless Veggie Dinners back in 2010, a year after he moved to Berlin. “It all happened by chance. I was new in town and I was already a vegetarian. I asked on [the hospitality exchange website] Couchsurfing who would like to check out nice veggie places with me and all of sudden it was a big group of people discovering Berlin.”

He started organising meetups – kung fu, Irish dance – and wanted to host events where he could cook for people. “I was playing basketball and a woman in the team worked for a homeless organisation in Moabit, so I talked to her, and we started cooking for homeless people. But we had to finance it somehow, so we invited people who could pay for their own plus a homeless person’s dinner,” he says.

Photo: Makar Artemev

He still remembers that first night vividly. “There were about 20 homeless people and about 40 other paying guests, so it was a great turnout. It was just me and two friends doing all of it at that time – we all made one dish, did the serving, cleaned up… all of it.” Word quickly got around, and Homeless Veggie Dinners became popular amongst like-minded Berliners keen to volunteer and get to know a different slice of society.

We didn’t knock on any doors, they came to us

The group was soon approached by a restaurant that wanted to provide the ingredients, which significantly lowered their costs. The next month, a couple who owned a nearby shop decided to provide the drinks for free. Since then, Homeless Veggie Dinners has been largely donation-based. “We didn’t knock on any doors, they came to us,” says Marie, a marketing professional who joined Homeless Veggie Dinners in 2011 and has been one of the pillars of the organisation ever since.

“Now we get food donated to us by wholesale markets on Fridays that would otherwise go to waste, and then we start the menu planning,” she explains of the schedule; Homeless Veggie Dinner is always held on the second Saturday of the month. “On Saturdays, we buy a few staples and see what we have and we make what we can with the least amount of cash. And then the work can begin.”

A seasoned team

The dinners were put on hold during the pandemic and only resumed in November. “Actually, our 10-year anniversary dinner was supposed to happen the night before lockdown was announced. We cancelled it because it didn’t feel safe. I felt so unsure about when the next wave would hit, and we all had a lot going on in our lives. But people missed it, so we met with the core group a few months ago to discuss our future.

I had a lot of responsibilities before, and I didn’t want that again, because my life has also changed a lot in the past three years. I wanted to share those responsibilities,” says Adamic. “People said they’d step in – and they really did. Everyone has their tasks now.” Adamic’s main role is now volunteer coordination, which is “already chaotic” after just a few months back in action, he says.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Today, each dinner involves 40 to 60 people, divided into three groups: the prepping and cooking team, the serving team and the clean-up team. At the February dinner, most of the volunteers on the prep team have been participating for years, though there are a few volunteers who are there for the first or second time.

Many study in the field of social work, Marie says. “It’s a good cross section of the international community of Berlin. We’ve had doctors, social media managers, teachers, tech startup founders. Maybe about 80% of them are foreigners looking for connections, but some of our former volunteers are wildly successful in their professions,” she says. “It feels like a different generation now though, it would be nice to bring the community back together.”

There are some people who we’ve been seeing for 14 years

Valmir, a doctor originally from Albania, has been with the organisation since 2014 and is usually responsible for making the soups. “I always loved cooking, so this is the role I like to take, but I also do serving sometimes. I just hate to clean up!” he says, laughing. “I can’t even remember how I heard about it originally, but I come whenever I can. The team is great – many of us are friends outside of the dinners, too.”

For another regular volunteer, it was no question that she would return when the dinners resumed. “I started in 2013, and I love baking from scratch, so I make most of the cakes,” says Julia, who joined the team shortly after moving to Berlin from across the country. Her favourite dinners are the December ones, just a couple of weeks before Christmas, when they all bring a small present for attendees to take with them.

A challenge that Homeless Veggie Dinners doesn’t always have volunteers for, however, is spreading the word about what they’re doing. “That’s hard to find people for, because it’s invisible work – but very important! We print out flyers and go to places that cater to people in need, or give them to the homeless we see on the streets along with a few words about our initiative,” Adamic says of their marketing efforts. “And of course there’s also word of mouth. People tell each other, and we also announce the next date at the dinners. There are some people who we’ve been seeing for 14 years!”

Breaking bread

Photo: hvd_berlin

The need for initiatives like Homeless Veggie Dinners, which has been held in Kreuzberg since 2012, has only grown in the time they’ve been hosting meals – and it’s as important as ever right now. According to the statistics provided by the Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft Wohnungslosenhilfe in November, the number of homeless people across Germany has skyrocketed in the past couple of years, a 58% increase. The exact number of homeless people in Berlin is difficult to count, as many cases go unreported, but in 2022 the Federal Office of Statistics estimated at least 26,000, acknowledging that it could be as high as 50,000.

Some of the homeless people that HVD serves are still sceptical of their dinner offer; it’s hard for them to believe that anything is truly for free, Adamic says. But he’s tried to foster an environment of generosity – and that spirit often rubs off on attendees. A few years ago, he says, a man at one of the dinners told fellow diners that he’d just lost his job and his housing because of a divorce, and another guest at the table offered him a room on the spot.

At the February dinner, the regulars arrive first – some together, some alone. Some want to chat, some would rather keep to themselves. Guests can mingle as much or as little as they like, though the team is always looking for new ways to bring people together. They frequently welcome entertainers at their dinners to play music or screen a film. At this dinner, jazz musical duo Vera Jónás and Gábor Csongrádi play covers for the guests, while a couple of kids dance around.

Photo: Makar Artemev

As the communal tables fill up, Adamic recognises the women on his left. “Oh, I know your faces, you’ve been coming here for years!” he says, and the two women nod. One of them, Irene, tells us she came across a flyer many years ago at another soup kitchen. “I was on the streets then, but here I always felt treated with dignity. I have been in a social housing project for a while now, and she is my roommate,” she explains, pointing to the woman sitting next to her.

“We are still in a critical financial situation, so every little helps to get by. And we love coming here anyway.” Both Irene and her friend have dressed up for the occasion. They’re joined by a third woman, Monica, who is here for the first time.

“Berlin is a good place to be doing this, because there are so many different people and so many want to help,” Adamic says. As the night goes on, the tables fill up and empty out again and again. The food keeps coming, the servers keep smiling. If there are any leftovers by the end – around 9pm – volunteers box them up and share them amongst the remaining people.

“This is an underprivileged community of people,” says Adamic. “They meet each other, but they are isolated from the rest of society. Here we have a chance to bring them together.”