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Volunteers from Feeding India. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Volunteers from Feeding India. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Bringing the buffet to the pavement

How youth-driven outfits are changing the face of food philanthropy

Not much changes on a daily basis in the plastic shanties that now house the last stubborn evictees of the Ejipura EWS Quarters demolition in January 2013. Across the road in Koramangala, Bengaluru, massive corrugated metal sheets fence the land they once called home, ahead of the construction of a mall; on their side, life has limped to the new normal. The days are spent at work—the women are commonly employed as house-help, the men as petty vendors or masons—and the evenings in dragging mattresses over manholes and building wood fires on the pavement.

But on a recent rainy Sunday night, a frisson of excitement ran through the 45 pavement-dwelling families. A car pulled to a stop at the kerb and out stepped a familiar grey-haired man. Venkatraman Iyer, member of the not-for-profit Swabhimaan Trust, has been working with the evictees since Day 1. With him were two young women; the one wearing a green T-shirt with Robin Hood Army (RHA) emblazoned on the back had been there a few times in the past but the other was a new face. A little later, another car drew up; a young man emerged and asked for help in removing a large handi (vessel), from the back seat.

Volunteers from not-for-profits Robin Hood Army and Swabhimaan Trust donating food. Hemant Mishra/ Mint
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Volunteers from not-for-profits Robin Hood Army and Swabhimaan Trust donating food. Hemant Mishra/ Mint

Within minutes, the residents had lined up, battered steel bowl, casserole, plastic bag in hand. The RHA volunteers—Vatsala Tibrewalla, a Flipkart employee, in the green tee, and Akanksha Agarwal, the first-timer, who works with HSBC bank— took turns in scooping out the vegetable biryani from the handi. Within 15 minutes, the handi was empty and the residents had retired behind the plastic sheets that offer them a modicum of privacy from the world.

The scene is repeated multiple times across the country: in slum clusters, in shelter homes, under flyovers, outside hospitals, at train stations. There’s no dearth of places where the hungry congregate in our cities.

Over the last year or so, it seems there’s no dearth of food either, or of people to feed the hungry.

As an act of philanthropy, feeding the needy is not a new concept in India: Be it Hinduism or Sikhism, Islam or Christianity, all the major scriptures accord serious brownie points for those who ensure a square meal or two for the underprivileged. Give a handful of rice grains to the itinerant mendicant or lay down a feast outside the mosque on a festival day, and it’s supposed to ensure an easier ticket to the afterlife and whichever heaven it is that one believes in. Charity is so frequently transactional.

Perhaps the most refreshing feature of this new-age food philanthropy is that it is so completely non-denominational. Most of the Ejipura evictees, for instance, are Tamil Christians. The biryani that fed them on the Sunday evening came from a Muslim-run restaurant called Rahhams, in Kammanahalli. Neither the donor nor the recipients were particularly interested in the origins of either.

As distinctive is the fact that the food drives are led by young people in their 20s, not greying seniors. No surprise, then, that the epiphany that leads them into thinking about food for the hungry comes not from religious texts but from their social or work circles. Consider Agarwal: Dining in office on a late night at work, she became curious about the fate of the buffet leftovers. “I asked the caterers and they said they chucked the food. I thought that was a shame," she says, adding that she was still trying to work out how to channel the food to the needy.

A similar flash of awareness led Ankit Kawatra, 23, to set up Feeding India (FI), a not-for-profit social enterprise that works along the same lines as RHA. Attending a celebrity wedding in Gurgaon, near Delhi, early last year, he was first flabbergasted by the 35-plus cuisines on offer and then by the knowledge that a massive quantum of food would be binned. “I tried to find out why, at weddings especially, there was always surplus food. I was told that this is the way it always was, you couldn’t risk running out of food," says the Delhi-based Kawatra on phone.

The RHA, incidentally, came about its model slightly differently. While in Portugal, Neel Ghose, vice-president, international operations, of Zomato, a restaurant search site, partnered with Refood, which distributes surplus food from restaurants. Back in India, he tied up with friend Anand Sinha, chief executive officer of PressPlay, a Sequoia-funded digital media start-up, to set up the RHA, working on the same template.

“It’s a volunteer-driven model run and operated by a bunch of youngsters with no formal structure," Sinha, 27, says on the phone from New Delhi. “The idea, when we set it up a year ago, was scalability and self-sustainability. In the sense, each locality should be able to generate enough food for local volunteers to distribute to all the local needy. That goal is still some way off."

Outfits that are completely volunteer-driven, however, develop their own sets of logistical complexities. For instance, most of the drives take place on Sunday evenings, when the bulk of the youth base has an evening off work. Active through city-specific WhatsApp groups—the RHA has a presence in 18 cities, besides Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad in Pakistan, while FI is active in 20-odd cities in India—they try and accommodate unexpected midweek distributions as well, since mobilizing three-four people is rarely a problem.

If social networking galvanized volunteers by the hundreds, both organizations tapped into the donor community through their personal contacts. “If someone we knew had a wedding in the family, we would immediately inform the hosts of our activities and await a call at the end of the night," remembers Kawatra of FI’s early days in mid-2014. “The excess food from a single wedding can feed up to 300 people."

A year down the line, FI counts corporate and college canteens, households and restaurants among its donors; weddings are largely seasonal players.

While these organizations are clear they only collect excess food—and not food that has been wasted on the plate—one peculiarity of the Indian scenario is, ironically, the restaurateurs’ reluctance to donate stigmatized leftovers. Many prefer to cook fresh food for the drives. For instance, Shabad Singh, owner of Café 27, Kailash Colony, and Relax Xpress, Jasola, both in Delhi, likes to rotate menus—parathas and dahi, kadhi-chawal, rajma-chawal—for the 100 especially prepared packets he gives the RHA every Sunday. “I’ve never counted the cost for the food we give away. In fact, I only feel bad I’ve never been able to join the kids on their rounds," he says on phone.

As new as they may be in the outward trappings, these stories do not surprise Nagpur-based Khushroo Poacha. “There are any number of individuals and groups who work to feed the hungry," says the 47-year-old Indian Railways employee who launched Seva Kitchen, a crowd-sourced organization for relatives of outstation patients admitted to city hospitals, last year. “The need of the hour is to identify them and identify the hunger zones, and match the two."

As idealistic as it may seem, Poacha knows what he is talking about. For 15 years now, he has been running Indianblooddonors.com (and, more recently, Plateletdonors.org), an SMS-IVRS-mobile app-based helpline that connects donors with those who need blood (and platelets). “The same technological principles can be used to make sure no one goes hungry," he says on the phone from Nagpur.

To be sure, there are miles to go. There is, for instance, the issue of nutrition; of ensuring that the food that reaches the needy makes for a balanced meal. There is the issue of health and safety, because food storage is a concern. There is the issue of timings: Do you go when the food becomes available or when it suits the volunteers—or the recipients? If the Sunday handouts are to be regarded as treats or top-offs, how does anyone ensure no one goes unfed through the rest of the week without actually creating dependency?

There are no easy answers. But on the streets, 20-somethings are asking the questions. If anyone can find the solution, they will.

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