Joyful chanting, warm smiles, a cool morning breeze, and good food. These are just some of the many beautiful things that have had UF students coming back to the Plaza of the Americas every weekday for generations to enjoy a wholesome lunch happily served by members of the local Krishna House, located at 214 NW 14th St.
Patrick O’Hearn, a Krishna Lunch frequenter and junior geomatics major, said, “I really love the community. To me what’s good about Krishna is the people.” O’Hearn also said that he had made some of his best college friends as a result of attending Krishna Lunch, and he valued the connective atmosphere promoted by the servers.
Another Krishna regular, sophomore biochemistry major Frances Brown, said she loved having such a tasty vegetarian option available and “that the people are really nice, they know me by name, they’re friendly and helpful.”
A UF tradition, Krishna Lunch is a delicious, all-you-can-eat vegetarian and vegan buffet that has been prepared and served daily by volunteers/devotees of the ISKCON of Gainesville since 1971, when Gargamuni Swami, the first Hare Krishna to come to Gainesville, began chanting and giving out food at the plaza to anybody who passed by him. Krishna Lunch is an extremely economical and nourishing alternative to most of the unhealthy food venues currently populating campus, providing unlimited servings of the day’s entrée, dessert, and refreshment to anyone who pays the $5 “donation” to receive a lunch waiver. More economical still, students and faculty alike can purchase lunch waivers in bulk-packs of 10 for $3.50 a piece, yielding unrivaled savings for even the poorest bohemians and hipsters among us! Served religiously from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., the Krishnas consistently hold steady to their mission “to distribute as much karma-free food as possible, without wasting a scrap,” in addition to offering one of the best meal bargains on campus.
Mercy, austerity, cleanliness, and truthfulness – the four pillars of a spiritual life. Adherents of the Hare Krishna faith believe that the best way to purify the soul and the body is through the divine chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra, a 15th century Vaishnava-sect chant repeating the three Sanskrit names of the one Supreme Being and cosmic god of all religions: Hare, Krishna and Rama. Attendees of Krishna Lunch and random passersby walking through the Plaza of the Americas are greeted with the sweet sound of this communal demonstration of devotion every day, absorbing the positive energy emanating from the chanters and the happy students filling their stomachs with much-welcomed sustenance.
Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda (1896-1977) was the founder of the Hare Krishna movement in the west and created the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in 1966 to spread his religion’s traditions of universal love, understanding, harmony, and vegetarianism to the English-speaking world. Carl Woodham (Kalakantha das), a senior member and chaplain of the Hare Krishna Church in Gainesville, said, “We want to help people become aware of the health and ecological values of a meat-free diet, and the best way to do that we’ve found is to show how you can get a very balanced meal, an economical meal, and satisfying meal without any flesh.” Woodham went on to say that the second mission of Krishna Lunch is to provide an outlet for devotees to share their spiritual tradition, namely music and dance, as part of a greater philosophy of fostering a friendly and inviting atmosphere that views all life as sacred. Woodham added that the intent of the Krishnas is not to proselytize nor impose their beliefs on anyone, but that they invite any and all students or faculty to visit their house and partake in Bhakti-yoga or group-prayer.
The Krishna Lunch staple on campus boasts a proud 44-year history, with founding members first taking advantage of the free-speech areas at UF in the early 1970s during the height of the Vietnam War. At the time, student protests at universities across the country were being met with violent and sometimes lethal force, such as the Kent State University massacre where Ohio national guardsmen murdered four students and maimed another nine. UF was no exception, with founding Krishna member and anti-war activist David Lieberman being arrested when he refused to stop serving food to students on moral grounds. The case went to court for disturbing the peace, but was thrown out due the lawsuit’s absurdity with the acting judge saying, “Let the Krishnas have their picnic.”
Since its picnic-like inception though, when the Krishnas were practically giving food out for free, the price of Krishna Lunch has steadily increased over the years. In the last seven years alone, the price of the Krishna Lunch “donation” has increased twice: from $3 to $4 in 2008, and from $4 to $5 in more recent years. One might be inclined to raise an eyebrow at this fact, considering that the Krishna House is a non-profit organization that already charges $500 per month to students who want to live there and attend the Bhakti Academy. But when asked about these recent price hikes, Krishna House representatives have stated that they were a necessity resulting from the economic recession, highlighting that the prices of the fresh produce for the salads and the biodegradable utensils they purchase in bulk had increased significantly. Prices have also been raised to pay minimum wage to a few of the long-time servers and cooks that live at the Krishna House, some of whom start preparing the food at 5 a.m. after quick meditation sessions.
“This is a unique expression of faith,” Woodham said. “It’s not in other traditions to share food, sacred food, or sanctified food, and since we started that practice before the university contracted with food suppliers, we were kind of grandfathered in.” Woodham concluded by saying that the lunch had grown far beyond the founders’ wildest expectations, sharing that Krishna Lunch serves about 800 students every day, and roughly 25,000 meals to homeless men and women every year. The Krishna House donates all of their leftovers to Grace Market Place and the St. Francis House homeless shelter in downtown every afternoon free of charge. “If people come and they haven’t got their cards or they haven’t got money, we never turn anyone away; we always feed people,” Woodham said.
Hearing this had me itching to test out and see if the Krishnas’ claims about feeding everyone were sincere, and so on Tuesday, Nov. 10, I decided to conduct a little social experiment. I dressed up in dirty clothes, messed up my hair, neglected to shave the dense stubble populating my face and headed over to get Krishna Lunch. I walked up to the donations table at around noon, and told the lovely woman receiving cash that I did not have any money, and that I was very hungry. She took one look at my pitiful and smelly state, flashed me a wide/toothy grin and handed me a lunch waiver so that I could eat for free! Just to make sure this wasn’t a fluke, on Friday, Nov. 13, I had my friend and UF mechanical and aerospace engineering junior Christopher Charters do the same thing, and plead for food on the grounds that he had no money. Just as the Krishnas did with me, they gave Chris a free one-meal coupon so that he could indulge in as much food as he fancied (the Krishnas have since been compensated for our meals). It gives me peace of mind and body to know that there are still truly genuine and good people left in this world, and to have learned that as long as they have breath in their lungs and two legs to stand on, the Hare Krishnas of the ISKCON of Gainesville will continue to engage in what they believe to be the highest spiritual privilege of serving blessed food to the students of the University of Florida.