I want to explain to you precisely how a military kitchen works in wartime Ukraine and why its work is so important, because I understand there to have been some rumours floating around on that ghastly thing, social media, spreading disinformation to the effect that there is no need for military kitchens because the some 500,000 Ukrainian soldiers in front line positions under combat deployment have enough food to eat. Having just returned from two weeks in close proximity to front line positions, and having spent several weeks last year delivering aid to front line positions, I feel qualified to speak about this subject. It is false to say that the soldiers on the front line, living in trenches that are infested with rats, have enough to eat. It is right to say that a number of cities along the front line, including Kharkiv, Kramatorsk and Zaporizhzhia, have ample food in the supermarkets. It would be wrong to say that the supermarkets in Izyum, Sloviansk or Kherson are full of food; their shelves are bare and there are hardly any supermarkets in those places that are open. As to Nikopol, the other significant front line city in free Ukraine, I cannot comment because I have not been there.
Moreover it is not just a question of how much food there is in supermarkets. In the context of a wartime environment, a difference of just a few kilometres can make all the difference between food and none, between life and death. Kramatorsk and Sloviansk are separated by a tolerably decent road and are about 15 kilometres apart; the availability of large supplies of food in the supermarkets in Sloviansk is substantially worse than that in Kramatorsk. In the trenches, just a few kilometres outside Kramatorsk, there is no food, no heat and very little of anything in the way of creature comforts. The same is true in the embattled trenches northeast of Kherson on the road towards Nikopol, that are supporting the troops in the bridgehead of Krynky on the south / east bank of the Dnipro River northeast of Kherson. The same is true in the embattled positions in Avdiivka, the western suburb of Donetsk in the Ukrainian Armed Forces are so valiantly holding on to territory surrounded on three sides by the Russian Armed Forces. In all of these places, in the trenches, food is in short supply and nobody has any business, whether on social media or otherwise, in suggesting that it is not or that there is not a high demand for food in these places. Morale amongst troops on the Ukrainian side remains low and one of the principal reasons for that is malnourishment.
The work of a military kitchen is straightforward in that it involves taking excess agricultural produce from Ukraine’s fields and preparing it in such a way that soldiers in embattled conditions can eat nourishing meals that are easy to prepare. Ukraine is Europe’s biggest producer of food and outside wartime conditions exports the greater majority of that food. Because Russia has blockaded Odessa port during the recent invasion of Ukraine, and occupied Mariupol port, Ukraine no longer has nearly the same opportunity to export her agricultural products to world markets and therefore she is producing agricultural surpluses that are donated to volunteer military kitchens principally located in Lviv and in Kyiv but there are others elsewhere. The food is then prepared by volunteers, international and domestic, so that it can be transported to front line positions for consumption by soldiers who otherwise risk malnourishment. The agricultural labourers, male, who traditionally would undertake the work of food preparation are now replaced with foreigners, women and old age pensioners, because those male agricultural labourers are now fighting on the front line and they are the ones in need of the food. The volunteers who prepare the food, by chopping vegetables, cooking meat, preparing pasta and all the other work involved do this for free and their contributions are hugely appreciated. None of these volunteers have their travel or accommodation expenses paid in any of the kitchens with which I am familiar and they are amongst the most effective volunteers working in all Ukraine in terms of their output.
Then the prepared food is typically dried in drying machines, and this is one area where there can be expenses because drying machines must be purchased and they are complex pieces of machinery although in some cases industrial facilities have been converted and co-opted for the purpose of undertaking the drying of prepared food. Also these dryers have substantial electricity and energy bills associated with them. Again the operation of this equipment is undertaken entirely by volunteers. Then other volunteers vacuum seal the dried food in plastic bags so that it may last many months and does not have a short shelf life. Then the food is distributed by volunteers using an informal logistics network across Ukraine of private vehicles that are heading out south and east anyway and that have spare space. The people driving the food across the country are again volunteers. Finally the food is delivered to various collection points in close proximity to the front line and soldiers or international volunteers transport the food packages in boxes or bags to soldiers actually in trenches. All the soldiers need to do is to add boiling water to the food packages and they have a healthy nutritious meal.
This entire process, replicated thousands or tens of thousands of times a day across the front line, the food having its origins for the most part in volunteer operations a long distance from the front line, is exceptionally effective and valuable and it is a hugely important contribution to the war effort. These volunteers’ military kitchens are exceptionally effective and I salute my colleagues who work together relentlessly, day in and day out, seven days a week, to ensure that the heroic Ukrainian Armed Forces are not starving in addition to all the other miscellaneous woes they are suffering and that they always have enough to eat.
I do not like to hear negative narratives on social media and instead I like to focus on the positive and uplifting spirited stories of decency, voluntarism and heroism which characterise the defence of Ukrainian territory by the fantastic Ukrainian people and the army of foreign volunteers who still come to Ukraine to work in the network of military kitchens, supporting the Ukrainian Armed Forces and civilians in proximity to the front line alike.