HCM CITY — As inflation rises, the number of workers who turn to free meal stalls and goodwill restaurants for cheaper meals increases. But the sustaining of these models is facing many difficulties.
At 10am every day in front of the “Goodwill rice stall” at 175 Trần Bình Trọng in HCMC, dozens of workers stand in line to either receive free meals or purchase meals at a cheaper price. Over the past year, this rice station has sold subsidised rice and distributed 600-1,000 free meals to the disadvantaged.
Having just received a free meal with meat from the Goodwill rice stall, Nguyễn Thị Dinh, from Phú Yên, said that she returned to HCMC to sell lottery tickets earlier this year after staying for a long time in her hometown due to the pandemic. Recently, her business had not been very smooth, and as prices increase daily, her life is even harder.
"Previously, me and my three sisters who shared a room only needed to contribute VNĐ20,000 (US$0.86) each to cook for two meals. Now, that much money is not enough for a full meal. Every noon I come here to queue for free rice and in the evening return to eat it at home,” said Dinh.
In addition to the number of people in difficult circumstances who receive free meals every day, many others working as motorbike taxi drivers, three-wheeler drivers, lottery ticket sellers and scrap dealers, etc., come here to buy subsidised meals for VNĐ10,000.
According to Đỗ Thị Tưởng, a member of the “Goodwill rice stall,” during the period when HCMC was on lockdown, she and her friends organised shuttle bus trips to deliver necessities to isolated areas and support those in need.
"As many workers are having a hard time after the pandemic, we decided to open the stall with help from benefactors. Here, a portion of rice with subsidised meat will go to the workers for VNĐ10,000. In addition, we also provide free meals for students, poor workers, patients and relatives who are in need," Tưởng said.
The free rice stall at 207 Nguyễn Văn Đậu, Bình Thạnh, is also popular with poor workers. The shop was opened by 87-year-old Trần Văn Hồng and his wife Nguyễn Thị My at the peak of the pandemic last year and has been open ever since.
Every day from 10 am, the shop serves about 500 free meals for the disadvantaged. Those in need drop by to pick up the prepared lunch boxes on one of the shop’s tables.
As prices escalated, more people came to the free rice stations, and the number of free meals did not meet the demand.
Trần Phước Hòa, founder of Thiên Phước vegetarian restaurant in Nguyễn Chí Thanh, said that for the past few months, he had been struggling to maintain it. Many years ago, to support low-income people, Hoa opened the Thiên Phước vegetarian rice station at the price of VNĐ5,000 per meal.
After many years of operation, the Thiên Phước franchise now only has one branch at 62 Nguyễn Chí Thanh. Hoà has to pay from his pocket to maintain the restaurant and ask his friends for support.
Hoà said that about two years ago, the price of a cooking oil tank was just over VNĐ400,000. Now, with the same 40-litre oil tank as before, the price had increased to more than VNĐ1.1 million. The increase in gasoline prices substantially impacted the cost of raw materials needed for meals.
"I think, more than ever, now is the time when the poor are in dire need of our help. And I will definitely find a way to keep the price of meals for the disadvantaged at VNĐ 5,000 to help them overcome difficulties,” said Hoà.
“Even in difficult times, there were volunteers who are students and workers every day that helped me and my wife cook,” said Hồng, owner of 207 Nguyễn Văn Đậu free food stall.
“Free food stalls in HCMC helped many poor people overcome difficult days of the pandemic. Although rising prices caused difficulties for the poor, if we unite and support each other, we can overcome any difficulty.”
Đỗ Thị Tưởng, a member of the Goodwill Rice Stall, said that keeping the price stable during inflation times was already a difficult task, even for normal rice stalls. Therefore, it would be not easy for the Goodwill Rice Stall to maintain a few hundred to thousands of free meals daily.
“We still try to maintain 600-1,000 free meals per day during these times thanks to benefactors and volunteers, said Tưởng. “Many working people in districts 5 and 8 come here in the evening and pick up vegetables and wash dishes, and tricycle drivers help the rice station to deliver meals to the hospital every day, and volunteers help the station prepare meals.” — VNS
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