It was in 2000 that Zamir Hassan first realized that there was a huge hunger problem in America — and he soon discovered that he had the tools to solve it with a new play on more traditional soup kitchens.
Nonprofit Feeding America estimates that one in every eight Americans faces hunger, but this is often an invisible problem in many parts of the United States, like the affluent New Jersey neighborhood where Hassan was living with his family.
Living proof of the American dream, Hassan first arrived in the U.S. in 1973 to attend grad school and quickly gained success in the relatively new industry of information technology. In fact, he was doing so well that he was blind to the hunger around him, until the day that he attended a soup kitchen as a chaperone with his son’s school, and his vision of his world changed.
“This is in one of the wealthiest communities in New Jersey,” he recounts. “I was really shocked. We served, like 225 people. And I said, ‘Wow, they live in my backyard, and I had no clue?’”
Hassan refused to stand by idly — he immediately decided to respond to the hunger problem, a decision driven in part by the tenants of his faith.
“I’m not supposed to go bed if my neighbor is hungry,” Hassan says of Muslim doctrine.
It was then that Hassan launched the program that would become Muslims Against Hunger, a grassroots effort that united people interested in giving back to the community in a way that was even more inclusive than traditional soup kitchens.
“A soup kitchen can require 13 years of age or 16 years of age for a volunteer,” he explains, noting that his program welcomes volunteers as young as seven.
Muslims Against Hunger grew quickly, thanks to training packages created by Hassan, reaching 20 different cities in just a few short years. As long as a group had six good volunteers, they could launch their own “franchise” of the idea, meaning that it was relatively simple to start a new branch in a new city.
In 2011, however, Hassan realized that there was a problem with his original plan: certain people were unable to reach the distribution centers. In many areas, Hassan would notice homeless people hanging out in parks or at train stations, far from the nearest soup kitchens and with no means to get there.
“So I came up with this whole idea of a mobile soup kitchen, which I named Hunger Van,” he says.
The principle is simple: volunteers meet somewhere — a church, a home, even a park, in the summer — and assemble healthy vegan meals, to be distributed by van to local hungry populations.
“The people we are feeding, they don’t end up eating good food, healthy food,” Hassan notes of his decision to make the meals vegan. “Also, vegan food is more sustainable, and to create a better world, we need a more sustainable approach to growing food and eating food.”
That said, while food might be the reason that volunteers come together — and, indeed, the impetus of the program as a whole — Hassan says that it is not his central focus.
He notes that while the program now spans about 5,000 volunteers and about five vans nationwide, “The van is really a metaphor.”
The symbol of the program takes a backseat to the feeling of community that Hassan has created with the program. “The number of vans really isn’t that important,” he says. “Just people getting engaged and involved.”
In the past six years, the Hunger Van program has expanded past American borders to Canada, India, Pakistan, Haiti, and Nigeria, with about one event a week in major cities. Hunger Van also works in cooperation with other groups, like the Hare Krishnas, for other regular soup kitchens.
And Hassan shows no sign of stopping – a retiree, Hassan has made Hunger Van his full-time job.
“I work nine days a week now, traveling around and mobilizing people,” he says. “And that’s what kind of keeps me motivated to engage people, get them mobilized. Faith or no faith, it should not be acceptable to anybody to have hunger.”
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