Every Sunday, groups of people, consisting mainly of students and young working professionals, step out of their homes and fan out across the inner alleys of cities like Delhi and Bangalore. Dressed in green t-shirts and carrying packets of food from restaurants like Au Bon Pain and Kebab Xpress, these people who call themselves ‘Robins’ are out to do just one thing – distribute free food to those who need it the most – the city’s hungry and homeless.
All of them are members of the Robin Hood Army, a volunteer-based organisation that collects surplus food from various restaurants and distributes it to those in need. Founded by Neel Ghose and Anand Sinha, the organisation, which has chapters in different parts of the world now, aims to tackle two major problems at one go – food crisis among the less fortunate and global food wastage. On its website, the Robin Hood Army claims to have helped 18,48,210 people with their ‘army’ of 8,770 ‘Robins’, and the numbers keep going up.
In this war against hunger, it enjoys support across a wide spectrum of people – from restaurant owners to students – all of whom have joined it in order to do their bit to address the food crisis in the city, one Sunday at a time. By partnering with restaurants, the organisation is also playing an instrumental role in reducing food wastage at the retail level, a segment known for wasting huge quantities of food.
Rahul Chhabra, who started volunteering with the ‘army’ in 2015 and now runs its North Delhi chapter, says, “The idea was to do something meaningful during the weekends, and that was it. But when I started going on these drives, I not only realised my own privilege, but also how every bit of effort counts, and how much difference it can make in someone’s life.”
So, every Sunday, he along with his team of volunteers, meet at the Art faculty in Delhi University and from there, divide themselves into teams. They collect food packets and then go to places like the Yamuna Pushta homeless shelter, Majnu ka Tila and slums in Jahangirpuri and Pul Bangash, to distribute this food. Like in North Delhi, RHA has chapters in different parts of the city – all run by conscientious individuals wanting to do their bit to address the problem of hunger and food wastage.
“On an average, we are able to feed around 2000 people every week. This is apart from the drives we conduct at night and at metro stations every week,” Chhabra says.
However, there are a few ground rules to how RHA works. Everything – from food management to social media management – happens online, entirely run by volunteers who do it in their own time. The ‘army’ doesn’t accept monetary donations, only asking for people’s time to do what it does. And you only distribute food you can eat yourself – no plate leftovers or inedible food.
The aim ultimately is four-fold – reducing unnecessary food waste, reducing food insufficiency, strengthening community ties and replicating the model across multiple cities in India. In just 3 years, the organisation has created a deep impact with this model, feeding everything, from biryani to brownies, to millions. But everyone who volunteers with RHA believes their job is just ‘1% done’.
“There are almost 200 million people in our country who do not have two square meals a day – we are barely scratching the surface. If anything, the milestones give us perspective that there is so much more to do and we sincerely hope we are just getting started,” RHA’s founder Neel Ghose said, in an interview.
The statistics are indeed alarming. As a country, we waste 67 million tonnes of food every year. Studies estimate that this wasted food (worth nearly ₹92,000 crore) can feed the entire population of Bihar for a year! We, in fact, waste as much food as is consumed by the whole of United Kingdom. India is the same country where more than 194 million people live in hunger; where one-fourth of the world’s undernourished still live.
In fact, according to UNICEF, 43% of Indian children under five years are underweight and 48% (i.e. 61 million children) are stunted due to chronic undernutrition. 3 of every 10 stunted children in the world is an Indian. The situation is indeed dismal.
The future, the ‘Robins’ believe, lies not only in doing something at the individual level but also creating awareness on the ground.
“The government is also doing things, through schemes like Jan Aahar to provide nutritious food to all. But clearly, that is not enough. It’s time that we as individuals also realise the role we can play. There’s so much food we waste on a daily basis that ultimately goes to the landfill. We spend lavishly on weddings, wasting more food than we consume. We don’t think twice before leaving foods on our plate. If we just do a few things right, we can make a big difference,” Chhabra says.
Sure, there are still 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 timings: Do you distribute food when it’s available or when it suits those who are distributing it? Sunday handouts can, at best, be only a part of the answer.
While government and policymakers are doing their best to end hunger and help India become food secure by 2030 in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the truth is that for millions of Indians, even getting two square meals a day still remains a dream. This, despite the many schemes and programmes the government runs – from the midday meal schemes for school children to the anganwadi system in place that provides nutritious food and rations to pregnant and lactating mothers, and even a provision for subsidised grains for those below the poverty line – to address the issue.
For the abysmal hunger statistics to change, India needs to better implement these currently existing programmes. It needs to act and take adequate measures to ensure food security for all, by 2030, as envisioned in the SDGs. Until that happens, this ‘army’ of ‘Robins’ continues to do all it can to address the hunger crisis – one food packet at a time.