The first problem we were trying to solve with the Robin Hood Army, a volunteer-based organization that works to get surplus food from restaurants and communities to the less fortunate sections of society, was hunger. But we realized along the way that it was not just about giving a meal to someone, but actually spending time with them, making them laugh, taking a selfie, listening to where they come from and what their problems are.

There is a lack of awareness about what people around us are going through and the fact that we can actually help them with our limited means and resources.

Slowly, those weekly or bi-weekly meeting while sharing a meal with them led to friendships. Then we figured out how to structurally change their lives.

In Indore, the “Robins" started teaching children on the weekends. Initially, I was a little uncomfortable with this because everyone in the Robin Hood Army volunteers in their free time. But my co-founder (Aarushi Batra) said let’s look at the number of children we can put into school. That’s not an open-ended responsibility, it’s a finite thing. Now, we have the Robin Hood Academy across 23 cities. We teach 2,500 children with a standardized curriculum of English, math, pattern recognition, etc. We have an operations team which ensures they have Aadhaar cards and counselling sessions with parents on why they should send their children to school. Over the last year and a half, we have put 560 children into school. This would not have happened if that first meal had not been served. What I am trying to say is: When you serve a meal, you get to know someone, you know you have resources and a community of like-minded people who want to make a better country. So (it’s about) how you channelize that in a short-, medium- or long-term way to make something sustainable and real.

Meals are still our primary metric. We serve around 275,000 meals a month. But I think the bigger picture is that this means 275,000 conversations a month. The mission statement now is, how do you use meals as a medium to bring out the best in humanity around you?

The quality of the food is very important; it must be good enough for you and your family to consume. It’s a sign of respect towards the people you are serving food to. It’s the first element in building trust.

You never know what you can do unless you have that first conversation. We think food is a great leveller; it leads to conversations and empathy.

In Udaipur, on 1 January, the “Robins" tied up with a luxury car dealer who provided cars, and we took the children in our academy for a joyride across the city; it was as simple as that. The Robin Hood Army is an open platform and people are free to do what they want.

It’s so fluid that anyone can come and be a part of it. People who have much more time and resources took this platform and treated it as their own baby. In Pune, Rathi uncle, a senior citizen, does a food drive every single night of the year from 10pm-2am. In Uganda (the Robin Hood Army has chapters in 12 countries now), our city head is a 16-year-old girl, Muskaan. This organization has gone beyond us. Our responsibility is to keep spreading the platform.

As told to Nitin Sreedhar.

Neel Ghose is the co-founder of the Robin Hood Army, a volunteer-based organization that works to get surplus food from restaurants and communities to the less fortunate.

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