All About Kyiv Kitchen Hub "Ants" - An Interview with the Founders
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April 16, 2024

All About Kyiv Kitchen Hub "Ants" - An Interview with the Founders

By Volunteer David Elley

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This article has been a long time in the preparation. In early February, I worked for a few days at the Kyiv Kitchen Hub "Ants" in Kyiv and met K and O, the two owners/principals. I promised K I would write about the kitchen, and we have been in intermittent correspondence ever since. I intend to use K’s own words as much as possible in a Q and A format. We have also talked to a guest volunteer to give potential volunteers some insight. In places, I have paraphrased to aid the translation and improve the flow.

Q. What is the origin and history of Kyiv Kitchen Hub “Ants”?

Our volunteer journey began on February 24, 2022, when we decided to stay in Kyiv and direct our efforts to confronting the enemy and helping those around us. Within two weeks, we began the production of dry foods. At the beginning of March, we made the first jerky products, followed by galettes (a French flatbread, sometimes with a savoury content) in the premises of one of the kindergartens of Troeshchyna. We worked with one of the nearby Silpo stores to pack and prepare for shipping. We are very grateful to the managers and staff of the Silpo store, who responded quickly and directly to help us. Since then “Ants” has been through several more stages of transformation, up to the current day.
Products of Kyiv Kitchen Hub "Ants"

Q. What is “Ants” producing today, and how much are you able to produce?

Currently, we produce between 20,000 to 25,000 portions of dry meals and galettes per month. We have reached this capacity step by step, from the very start in March 2022. We have improved capacity by improving two areas incrementally. The first was the search for raw materials that would allow us to produce more. The second was improving the equipment we use and increasing the effectiveness of our workflows and practices, from preparation to packaging. In quite a small space, we looked at the use of the vertical space of the room, which freed up space in the shop for work surfaces. We also focused on the elimination of wasteful and unnecessary activities in the workflows. We make up to 20 products, from breakfasts to main meals, snacks, cakes and jerky.

Q. What are your constraints, and what stops you from doing more?

The fact is that despite all our desire, we barely manage to collect the funds to pay the monthly rent of UAH 20,000 and the electricity bill of about UAH 45,000. It is very difficult every month to have funds available to replenish supplies of consumables or do anything additional to furnish the premises. The food dryers are probably the most expensive to run in terms of electricity use.

Q.  Where do all your supplies come from? Is it surplus food from farms, etc., donations, or do you buy your ingredients on the open market?

To answer this question, it is necessary to go back a little into the past. When we started production, we analyzed what opportunities we have (our skills, our resources, etc.). We looked at how we could encourage volunteers to work and what the trends would be. Understanding that any volunteer activity is accompanied by a lack of money and this will not improve in the future, we chose the best model we could, without spending money. We only buy what we cannot find for free. 
Supplies delivered to Kyiv Kitchen Hub "Ants"
We get 95-99% of our raw materials for free. We have a wide range of donors, from people who grow vegetables, fruits, and nuts on their plots, to charities, private entrepreneurs, to the large producers, such as Myronivskyi Hliboprodukt, who constantly provide us with chicken. This outreach to donors is hard and continuous work because trust must be earned, and we work hard on the relationships with our donors. 
What are we forced to buy? For example, we buy meat for jerky, which we make for the scouts and snipers. This is a rather expensive raw material, and therefore we are only able to produce a rather limited number of jars, and then only if there is an external source of funding.

Q. How do you receive orders from the army, how do you decide which orders to work on?

Actually, we don't get orders from the army, we get requests for help. These requests come to us from three sources: the military may place a request for their units; families of military personnel at the front may get a direct request from their loved ones; the third is from volunteers or charitable foundations, NGOs. We cannot fulfill all requests, so we use the following criteria to make decisions.
First, we ship only to units that are in combat positions and where it is not possible to cook: our dishes are designed for these conditions. One bag provides one meal for one person - you only need to add boiling water. In the trench, the first line of defense, there is no other opportunity to eat. The further from the combat positions, the more opportunities there are to supply the soldiers, so it is irrational to consume our meals where there is a choice. After all, we know how many resources need to be spent to prepare such dishes for the front.
Ukrainian soldiers with products from Kyiv Kitchen Hub "Ants""
Second, we need to be able to trust those who turn to us before we ship products. One obvious way is when someone we trust turns to us or someone we trust vouches for the person who turns to us. After that, we need any request to come with a request from a front-line military unit where the need is clear.
Third, we focus on smaller units. These are the units that are more likely to be overlooked by the logistics services of the military, for whatever reason. We do not accept requests for more than 100 people at all. We want to help units that are in trouble. We can be nimble and responsive to the smaller units and therefore complement the military logistics system, not merely feed into it.
Borsch made by Kyiv Kitchen Hub "Ants" at the front line

Q. Do soldiers pay for food? Is this an exchange, since you showed me a painted and signed shell case when I was there?

We transfer all the products that we manufacture at “Ants” to the front exclusively, free of charge. This is our credo, which we have followed since the foundation of our activity. In return, we ask for a photo report of receipt, nothing more. 
Sometimes some of the military or volunteers bring us souvenirs. We are grateful for that, and we try to turn these souvenirs into opportunities by selling them at charity auctions and directing funds to finance the needs of “Ants”. We recently sold a painted shell from an M777 howitzer for UAH 22,000, and the proceeds bought meat to make jerky for our scouts.

Q. Volunteers in the kitchen seem to know exactly what they are doing all the time. Is this just experience or are they nutrition professionals who have trained others?

You are not the first person to have this impression after visiting “Ants”, and we are very proud of this. This means that we have managed to create a fairly effective mechanism. After all, only after creating a volunteer production line did I understand what it means to develop the competence of "activity in conditions of uncertainty". There are many variables that affect what happens every day, from the availability of each type of raw material to the availability of the right number of people of a certain qualification at the right time on the right workstation.
Volunteers at Kyiv Kitchen Hub ''Ants"
Volunteers have received professional instruction in matters of nutrition already here in "Ants”. At the very beginning, we were all amateurs. The only professional food production technologist was O L, who was in our team at the very beginning. It was she who finalized the recipe for galettes and was the production coordinator at the initial stage, for which I am personally very grateful to her. From the very beginning, we learned step by step, constantly working to improve efficiency. This work does not stop to this day. We learn and pass on our experience to those who join our team. At this point, I turn to International Volunteer, J, who has agreed to answer some questions from me.

Q. How long have you been a volunteer at Kyiv Kitchen Hub “Ants”?

I volunteered here for two weeks last November, and now it will be ten days or so in January, so about four weeks in total.

Q. Are there jobs you enjoy doing the most? Which ones, and why? 

I like restocking the dryers because you're on the move, and P, A and N are always joking around, especially when we're making dried apple slices - so delicious! Loading up cars with food for the front is especially fulfilling because you know in a few days the soldiers in the trenches will be eating our good food.

Q. How connected do you feel to the mission of the kitchen? 

I feel a deep connection because of all the people in the kitchen, particularly the principals, K and O, and their kids. They have grown dear to my heart, and as an Austrian, I think I've got a special responsibility to do better than my ancestors and to fight fascism so "Never again!" is not just an empty phrase.

Q. What makes “Ants” your favorite location to volunteer? 

The deep immersion in Ukrainian culture and life because you're seeing how average people here really live. Being in the capital, in the middle of Ukraine, exactly where the Russians were standing at the gates feels right. The organization, hygiene and efficiency here is just the top, and I feel my time here makes an impact.

J stayed much closer to “Ants” than I did. I stayed in the Teatralna district on both of the visits I made to Kyiv, but I found I could easily be at “Ants” by a two-bus trip from the Maidan, taking 45 minutes to an hour, although the smaller yellow buses will fly right past you (in a snowstorm) if you don’t look interested when they approach!

Back to K for the final question:

Q. If there was a ceasefire tomorrow, what would happen at “Ants”?

There would be changes. During the war years, we have gained experience in food production, we have worked out and polished technological processes, and we have created an effective team. The products we make are liked by people and have a number of competitive advantages compared to what the market currently offers. Therefore, it would be a sin not to use this opportunity to create a social enterprise on this basis, which will be able to manufacture and supply high-quality products to the free market and create jobs. After all, in the post-war period, it will be very important. It is not only about food production.
There is a second component: charity and volunteer activity, and here we also have quite ambitious plans for the post-war period. The first direction concerns the development of the younger generation's knowledge and skills in conducting and starting an entrepreneurial activity. The country needs economic development. The second direction is more global and is designed to change the ecological state of the planet for the better through the creation of permaculture forest-gardens. After all, in Ukraine, there is a huge amount of free land that can be used, and I have some pre-war experience in creating a forest-garden and a great desire to restore the biodiversity of flora and fauna in Ukraine. So "Ants” will continue.

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