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The team drives through the decimated streets of Kharkiv, intent on their mission. Their armored car passes rubble from the pock-marked buildings, shattered by the nightly shelling. They are wearing bulletproof vests, as always.

Without warning, shells fall from the sky, exploding all around their vehicle. Amazingly, the crew gets through intact.

Is this a spy making a daring escape?  A war correspondent risking her life for the news?  No. It’s a pizza delivery.

Welcome to the world of Pizza for Ukraine.

This is a tale involving at least two continents, a bunch of tech geeks, and a lot of goodwill. The result is an emergency relief program like no other, serving food to hungry people in bomb shelters and other places for displaced people, because the places they usually live are dangerous or bombed beyond usability.

Photo by Yuliya Narmuntseva

It’s the simplest humanitarian aid you’ve never thought of.

Pizza being delivered to people sheltering in a train station.  The number “88” on the outfit is the street number of the pizza kitchen that did this delivery. Photo by Yuliya Narmuntseva

The story of Pizza for Ukraine

The city of Kharkiv, where this food program takes place, is the second-largest city in Ukraine with a population of about 1.5 million people at the beginning of the war. It sits just 19 miles south of the Russian border, in Ukraine’s central northeast. Kharkiv was invaded by the Russian army in February of this year. Heavy street fighting took place and the city eventually came under Ukrainian control again, but not before gas pipelines and electrical substations were destroyed, leaving many people without power, heat, and water. It has been the target of relentless shelling by the Russian army since the beginning, including being the target of cluster bombs, which violate international law. 

The shelling has often fallen on civilian targets. In addition to shells launched every morning at 4:00 am from nearby Belgorod in Russia, additional shells may fall anywhere, any time throughout the day. 

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed he was going to bomb civilians in response to the October 8 demolition of the Kerch Strait Bridge in Crimea, the reality is that Russia has been bombing civilians as intentional targets since the war began last February. It is not the case that civilians are sometimes hurt simply because they happened to be near militarily significant sites that were bombed. On the contrary, Russia has been deliberately bombing civilians for the sake of bombing civilians since the beginning of this war—and the residents of Kharkiv have been experiencing this ongoing war crime on a daily basis. 

The view from the window in the flat of Yuliya, a member of the pizza crew, in early July. From here, she can watch each night’s 4am missiles fly from Belgorod until they explode in Kharkiv. Photo by Yuliya Narmuntseva

This is not only nerve-wracking. Between terror and sleep deprivation, the nightly explosions are a source of ongoing fear in children, some of whom now dread going to sleep at night.

The bombing in Kharkiv has killed many people and left hundreds of thousands more homeless. Normal life has been disrupted; jobs, food, and safety are scarce.  But talented people are still in abundance and available for unusual activities—like delivering pizzas in war-torn areas. 

How ‘hanging pastries’ for soldiers led to pizzas for civilians

Meanwhile, half a world away, near Boston, Mark Bernstein was reading about the war. 

“I’d read how people in Kyiv and Kharkiv left ‘hanging orders’ for breakfast pastries for soldiers, or medics; the original notion, as I understand it, is you’d pay for an extra sweet roll, and the coffee shop would leave that sweet roll “overhanging” the edge of the case to show it had already been paid for.  

Mark figured that if local Ukrainians could do it…why not Americans?

Back in April, I was thinking that it would be really nice if one could simply order a pizza or two to be delivered to a bomb shelter or someplace like that. I’ve been very frustrated by the widespread attitude in the US that, while things were terrible, there was just nothing we could do. This is wrong: there’s always something you can try to do, and Americans used to know that. So, I eventually found a pizza place in Kharkiv, and I ordered ten pizzas for a nearby bomb shelter.

 “I’ve been very frustrated by the attitude in the US that, while things were terrible, there was nothing we could do. This is wrong: there’s always something you can try to do. Americans used to know that.”

Other people got excited.

“I mentioned this on Facebook. Some people asked if they could send pizzas, too. Why not? A long-time colleague in hypertext research, J. Scott Johnson, asked how he could help. ‘Build the website!’ I said.  A day or two later, Pizza for Ukraine was up and running.”

It really is that simple. Americans and other people from all around the world buy pizzas, and the pizzas get made and delivered to people in Kharkiv. Everybody wins. People outside of Ukraine can make a positive contribution, and hungry people in Kharkiv get fed. In between, the people who make and deliver the pizzas get paid, money that goes into the local economy. Since unemployment in Kharkiv is astronomical, every dollar helps.

Consider how perfect a relief food pizza is. It requires no utensils to eat and arrives in a box.  Distribution is done by handing out boxes or slices. There are no dishes to wash. Meals for 100 can fit in the back of a van and can be taken to train stations, hospitals, and schools acting as bomb shelters, as well as village squares and any other place that has hungry people.

In June, the pizza crew went to a kindergarten where refugees from occupied Balaklaya and Husarivka were lodged. Many escaped with the clothes they were wearing and nothing else. At that time, adults received one meal a day and children got two, so the pizza was especially welcome. The shortage of food was not the only difficulty in the shelter: the only beds available were four feet long.

As of November 6, 2022, Pizza For Ukraine has delivered 2,924 pizzas, thanks to 802 small donations from all over the world. Deliveries are photographed as an anticorruption measure, and boxes are often decorated with simple messages from donors, such as their first names and where they live. 

One of “my” pizzas being delivered, along with many others. You can fit a lot of food in the back of a car! Photo by Yuliya Narmuntseva

At times, the delivery crew has literally used an armored car for deliveries. 

During the worst of the shelling, crews used a van with improvised armor which had been loaned to them by the proprietor of an automobile tire store who had left the country. They called it the apocalypse van. Photo by Yuliya Narmuntseva

The crew has also started bringing pizzas to recently-liberated villages near Kharkiv. Unlike your average pizza delivery, they have to wait until roads are cleared of unexploded mines.  Sometimes the roads are simply impassable. At other times, they travel past villages that didn’t make it, bombed out of existence. 

Photo by Yuliya Narmuntseva

On the way to the newly-liberated village of Balaklaya, the crew found areas where the road had ceased to exist. On another stretch of the same route, they had to stop to remove a tree that had fallen across the road. Still further, they had to travel many miles out of their way because bridges had been blown up.

“Sappers worked on one bridge, and one of them blew up just as we passed this place,” said Eugenia Galetskaya, a pizza delivery person and one of my correspondents in Ukraine. “There were many burnt tanks and cars along the way. Villages along the way were also destroyed.”

My Ukrainian correspondents are eager to tell stories of their homeland under attack from the Russians, stories of what they have seen while on the road, their far-flung relief efforts, and of their resilient fellow Ukrainians. The reality of being under attack by the Russians means that we must use end-to-end encryption in order to communicate. 

Still, the stories are there, and my correspondents are proud to tell them.

This is a story of wartime need, privation, and at least some relief. It is certainly a story of gutsy Ukrainians performing the hell out a task in the middle of an inhumane situation.

But it is also a story of the existence of a tiny reserve of a quality that once seemed more evident: American know-how. For all their numerous faults and lack of proper understanding of local cultures, Americans were known for figuring out solutions to problems that had seemed intractable to others for generations. Mark Bernstein and J. Scott Johnson are doing a pretty good job at solving one small piece of a huge problem.

Mark is aware that his relief program will not bring peace or victory, or even provide warm, dry homes for half a million people in the city of Kharkiv. But it will get some hungry people fed, put some dollars into the local economy, and let people know that other people around the world care about them. 

“It’s only pizza,” he says, “but it’s not nothing.”

To help feed civilians under attack in Kharkiv, visit Pizzas for Ukraine.

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Dr. Abby Hafer

Abby Hafer is a biologist, educator, and public speaker. She has a doctorate in zoology from Oxford University and teaches human anatomy and physiology at Curry College. Her written works include the books...