In Lviv, Ukraine, missiles fall on and around the city on a regular basis, including near a small Catholic church on whose grounds a 1,350-square-foot tent houses an industrial field kitchen.
This kitchen, soon to be providing free hot food to nearby residents and refugees, has been set up by Homer community member Lucas Wilcox and a team of American and Ukrainian volunteers through their aid organization, Altruist Relief Kitchen (ARK).
Made from local and mostly recycled materials, the tent houses six collapsible, wood-fired stoves on which 75 gallons of food and clean drinking water will be prepared every hour. Strong enough to withstand blizzards, this giant, collapsible off-grid kitchen is Wilcox’s own design, which he perfected over the years, and that can also be used as an emergency shelter, storage facility, community center, or field hospital, with multiple tents able to be connected together. Because the wood-fired kitchen does not require gas, propane, or electricity, it could function uninterrupted in Ukraine throughout the winter months.
Behind the church, 100 refugees, mostly women and children, live in an apartment complex. In the surrounding area are approximately 1,000 refugees.
“We chose Lviv as the base of manufacturing for ARK as it’s the last place that will receive direct conflict and is a bottleneck of refugees coming in and out of the country,” Wilcox shared. “It’s a safe place to build kitchens and move them to places that need them most around the country. There are lots of benefits to setting up at a church — they are basically sovereign territory, much less likely to get bombed, aren’t as subject to administrative decisions from the City, and there are already lots of people in need close by.”
Wilcox arrived in Lviv on April 18, 2022, the day of the first missile strikes in the city. He left on Oct. 10, the day of the biggest strike that took out electricity in the country. With his visa renewed, he will be returning in January. The past eight months have been spent establishing manufacturing, a crew, and making local connections. The kitchen crew will serve approximately 1,800 meals a day, with the ability to make approximately 36,000 meals a month. Making and serving these meals will be residents and refugees from in and around the area who are directly affected by the war.
“The inherently altruistic scope of this project elicits excitement and enthusiasm from the refugees, residents, and volunteers who come together to create it,” he shared. “We have a really sensational experience while helping people.”
As a child raised in poverty, Wilcox worked in his school cafeteria from the age of 7 to ensure that he would have access to enough food every day. In 2001, after high school, he and his friends drove a school bus around the country collecting wasted food and serving free hot meals to the homeless. In college, as student president at Kachemak Bay Campus, he created a program to have free food catered to the college almost every day. In 2009, during his second year of college and inspired by Kathy Knott, his anthropology teacher who had done aid work all over the world, Wilcox began to build the project that would become ARK. His goal was to provide a range of basic necessities, including free hot meals, to people around the world who most need them.
“It was an incredibly ambitious goal to build an aid organization from scratch, without any resources or money that would address the systemic problems inherent in other aid organizations,” he said. “My original vision was simply that I knew I could make a better refugee camp than currently exists. I saw the major problems plaguing humanitarian organizations, like a lack of transparency, efficiency and efficiency, massive bureaucracy and high paid CEOs, and I saw some simple ways to remedy those kinds of issues.”
In 2012, Wilcox bought several teepees and a school bus to transport them in, and began building large-scale kitchen gear. His idea was to start with a mobile relief kitchen to respond to hurricanes and floods in the United States, and use the teepees as shelters and kitchens. For the next several years, he spent his winters in Homer designing ARK and raising his daughter, and his summers in the Lower 48, building gear and serving food to large groups of people in need.
“Almost every day of the past decade not spent with my family has gone into the creation of this project or into earning the money to fund it,” he shared. “I’m trying to be as beneficial as possible and this project is the best use of my interests and abilities. The last five years was relentlessly pushing the boulder uphill because there isn’t a clear-cut path to follow on this kind of thing. Over the past several years, it’s really come together, and mostly because it has attracted a team of amazing, brilliant people from all of the country.”
In 2016, ARK partnered with Organic Valley to provide food, water and other emergency services to the community of Baker, Louisiana, after a major flooding event. Immediately afterwards, ARK transported a group of self-described Marti Gras Indians from New Orleans to Standing Rock, where volunteers set up a large-scale kitchen in one of their massive teepees. A month later, after a fundraiser at KBay Cafe in Homer raised money to cover the cost of transportation, ARK returned to donate and set up their six giant teepees for the water protectors to live in through the sub zero winters. In 2017, Wilcox volunteered in two Syrian refugee camps on the Greek Island of Lesvos and later that year, he and a dozen volunteers spent six weeks cooking and distributing 10,000 free hot meals to the lowest income communities in and around Houston, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey.
“While Standing Rock and the refugee influx out of Central America can be inherently divisive topics, when it comes down to it, nobody wants to find themselves arguing against giving food and water to hungry and thirsty women and children,” Wilcox said. “Humanitarian aid is a great unifying force in that way — we can all agree that families should have food and water during a crisis without needing to agree on any of the politics of the crisis.”
In 2018, ARK moved away from disaster relief and into feeding refugees. Wilcox and his team set up in the desert on the U.S. side of the Mexican border wall, cooking food and driving it across the border to serve to the refugees in Tijuana who were coming from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, fleeing gang violence or regional famine caused by climate change. It was easier and safer to cook food on the U.S. side and drive it across the border than it was to try and keep all the gear and supplies in Tijuana.
In 2021, ARK was moving the kitchens from Tijuana to Reynosa, Mexico, to a walled compound next to a church on the Rio Grande. While they were beginning to set up, the already unstable situation between rival gangs in the area further deteriorated, creating a huge spike in the already high number of kidnapping and murders in the city. When refugees evacuated the city square, crowding into the walled compound and filling it wall to wall, ARK lost the spot to build the kitchen.
With their tent anchors still set in the concrete and now beneath hundreds of camping tents used as personal shelters, Wilcox and his team spent months rebuilding gear, fixing the school buses, and cleaning, organizing and maintaining supplies. In the New Year, they will be moving the 20,000 pounds of custom gear on two school buses to Guatemala, setting up a series of kitchens and clinics. These tents will also be a production facility, where additional kitchens will be made from cheap or free recycled materials, with a goal of making them self-replicating.
“In our society there’s this idea that we can’t affect the world on a wide scale or on long time horizons because the repercussions of our actions diminish as they move out from us, like ripples fading on a pond,” Wilcox shared. “I see it in an opposite way, that the waves our actions grow with intensity and become tsunamis as they move down the decades and centuries. We can use every sliver of the luxury we’ve inherited to conduct key actions that amplify over time and end up having a substantial positive impact on the world.”
This November, ARK officially became a nonprofit, operating as a 501(C)3.
“I waited to incorporate and apply for 501C3 until we were at a point where we could grow quickly,” he said. “I wanted everything to be in place first — the people, support networks, gear, financial transparency systems, and now with our ability to manufacture off-grid industrial field kitchens in an active war zone, all those things have come together. We’re now at a point where we’re ready to grow very fast and we have all of the necessary safe guards in place to ensure that it remains stable while we do that.”
With radical sustainability, efficiency, and transparency as ARK’s framework, a rotating group of dedicated volunteers has been providing aid. By using recycled materials, they provide basic necessities significantly cheaper than major disaster relief organizations. With every donation posted on their website, along with videos of their ongoing operations, anyone can see what they do and how they do it.
Wilcox recently hosted a community presentation at Grace Ridge Brewing, sharing how people can help, citing that ninety percent of the work to feed people in an active war zone happens from homes and libraries, on phones and computers, and that ARK is a concrete way to create substantial positive change around the world. A video recording of his presentation can be found on the ARK website and YouTube channel.
“This project provides a stage for us to use our talents, interests, and abilities to create positive change in our global commons,” he shared. “We invite skilled people to help us chart a path through complex terrain by joining our advisory board, and we invite anyone with a spare day or weekend to help us write grants, compile receipts, make phone calls, or edit videos. Donating money is an immediate and important way people can vote for this project moving forward, but more than anything, I’m inviting and encouraging you to participate during this critical window of opportunity.”
Wilcox’s goals include building additional kitchens in Ukraine so that by spring there are kitchens in Ukraine and clinics in Guatemala functioning simultaneously.