Bar Elias, Lebanon – A truck backs up with dozens of boxes of tomatoes, onions, carrots and peppers, and parks near a remote makeshift kitchen at a small swimming complex in Lebanon’s rural Bekaa Valley.
Omar Abdullah of Lebanon-based NGO Sawa for Development and Aid sighs as he reads through the receipt. “Food items keep getting more expensive,” he tells Al Jazeera. “The price of vegetables has more than tripled.”
Abdullah is running the NGO’s annual Ramadan kitchen, where a team of Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian cooks and volunteers prepare hot meals for 1,500 Syrian refugee and Lebanese families, and food baskets for others in the cash-strapped country.
“Even here in this building that is far from everything, we receive dozens of families every day asking if they could sign up to get meals at night,” Abdullah says, frazzled as he tries to follow up on food deliveries.
Running the kitchen has become extremely difficult; food inflation in Lebanon in less than three years has exceeded 400 percent, while the price of diesel for electricity and petrol for automobiles has skyrocketed.
Bread and vegetable oil – two key staples in Levantine cuisine – have especially become more expensive because of both the country’s spiralling economic crisis and the war in Ukraine.
In the kitchen, 60-year-old Om Mohammad is among three cooks who take the lead. “We don’t want to compromise the quality of our meals, so we’re going to prepare less than usual this year,” she says, pouring chopped garlic and cooking oil into large vats.
Om Mohammad, a Syrian who fled air strikes and shelling over Darayya near Damascus in 2013, has been working in the kitchen for nine years. “Even people from Beirut are calling us, and there are more Lebanese families who receive our meals,” she says. “I think their lives have become almost as bad as ours.”
More than three-quarters of the Lebanese population live below the poverty line. The country’s economic crisis also had a compounding effect on about one million Syrian refugees, of which 90 percent live in extreme poverty, according to the United Nations.
More Syrian refugees are going into debt to cover food costs, while health experts over the past year have documented major changes in dietary trends among impoverished families across Lebanon, including skipping meals.
The COVID-19 pandemic rattling the global economy further worsened donor fatigue for dozens of humanitarian organisations working in Lebanon, especially with refugees. As of April, the UN’s refugee agency in Lebanon has only been able to secure 13 percent of its $534m budget for the year.
While Lebanon recently reached a staff-level agreement with the International Monetary Fund for an economic recovery programme, and is slowly rekindling ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries that were once key economic patrons, analysts and officials alike have told Al Jazeera the crisis will take years to resolve.
Meanwhile, Abdullah is trying to find a way to keep the kitchen going and to serve food baskets to people far from the eastern Bekaa Valley.
“We talk to families and groups we partner up with in Beirut and Tripoli,” he says while monitoring seven men and women putting together packages with vegetables, cooking oil, and other items. “I don’t know, maybe we should find a way to start cooking meals over there, too.”
He admits there will be changes to the meals the kitchen serves going forward to cope with costs.
“We might have to reduce how frequently we include meals with meat going forward, so we can keep providing to as many families as possible, as long we find alternatives to keep the nutritional value.”
On this night, families will receive freshly baked bread instead of sfiha, a dish of flatbread topped with meat and pine nuts. But Abdullah and the cooks in the kitchen agree to alternate to make sure families are not deprived of traditional meals.
“The Ramadan kitchen is also to maintain heritage and tradition through the meals we serve, so we cannot remove these popular dishes entirely,” he explains.
It’s no secret in the kitchen that food inflation and funding have made it difficult for Sawa to keep up with demand for its services.
Om Mohammad says she hopes the kitchen can continue after a strong 10 years of public service. It’s also a livelihood for her, other Syrian refugees, and some Lebanese all living in nearby areas.
“We’ve become a family after all these years together,” she says.