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Kebabs, burgers and more: How the Robin Hoods of new India are feeding the poor

Did you know that the biggest wasters of food are those who profit from it: restaurants and food retailers? And even as you stuff yourself with grub at the neighbourhood joint, more than one billion across the world will go to bed hungry tonight. But here's the good news: two 26-year olds from New Delhi have taken an initiative to ensure that neither the food goes to waste and nor do the homeless go hungry.

Meet Neel Ghose and Anand Sinha, the netizens behind the Robin Hood Army, which takes to the streets every Sunday night to distribute food to the homeless, neediest, poorest and the eldest on the streets. Food parcels are collected from restaurants once they are about to shut shop and then distributed to the needy.

The heroic outlaw Robin Hood had one motto: steal from the rich to give to the poor. The Robin Hood Army drew inspiration from the much admired 'rebel hero' and decided to feed the hungry Indians with its 'Band of Youngsters. The initiative, however, is based on Portugal's "Refood", an organization which has been helping the needy get access to their daily meal.

The team in Hyderabad

The team in Hyderabad

"It started as a one man show in 2011. Hunter Halder would hop on his bicycle every night, scout Lisbon restaurants to pick up each restaurant's leftover food to distribute among those hardest hit by the country's economic crisis.Today Halder has 1500 volunteers and Re-food feeds 50,000 people daily in Portugal. That's my vision for India too- feed as many people as possible ," says Ghose, who is currently the vice president of international operations at Zomato and the co-founder of Robin Hood Army.

Started two months ago with only five volunteers distributing food parcels to to the needy living under the flyovers of Outer Ring Road in New Delhi, the Robin Hood Army today has a core team of 120 people spread across five cities- Calcutta, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Delhi and Mumbai who manage to feed at least 1600 people every week. From Kichdi to alu parathas, biryani, garlic bread and even vada pao, the hungry have had a taste of a variety of dishes with restaurants like Kebab Express, Hyderabad House, Midnight Munchies jumping on the Robin Hood bandwagon.

How it works:

The Robin Hood Army(RHA)has a four-point agenda - reducing unnecessary food waste, reducing food insufficiency, strengthening community ties and replicating the model across multiple cities in India.

Even though RHA is at a nascent stage, it eventually wants to be a scalabale and self-sustainable model where in smaller, nuclear communities of volunteers will be responsible for serving the homeless and the needy in a specific locality close to their respective residences. For example, food will be collected from restaurants in Colaba in Mumbai and the work will be divided between three people-one will be responsible for collection, another for packaging and a third for distribution. "The three people will eventually spread the word and form mini groups such that each residential area becomes a sustainable community itself and manages to reduce food insufficiency by obtaining massive amounts of food at practically no cost daily," explains Ghose.

RHA at work in Delhi

RHA at work in Delhi

"It's a team effort. Everyone co-ordinates, contributes and takes ownership. There's no one-man army here. Without taking ownership the dream of independent communities will not be possible," says Chitvan Jaipuria, a 26 year old wedding planner, who recently organised a distribution in Kolkata in areas like Southern Avenue, Chetla and Park Circus and fed over 300 people in one night.

But to grow bigger and faster, Sinha and Ghose is soliciting the help of students and companies too. As of now, most of the volunteers at RHA are young professionals.

"The next objective is to get as many students involved as possible. The Delhi team has already spoken to students at Lady Shriram College and once they are on board we will be one step closer to redirecting unserved left-over food at restaurants to the hungry on a daily basis," said Ghose.

"In the next year we want it completely volunteer driven serving people in smaller clusters in the city. Hopefully we will be serving 12-15 cities in the next 8-10 months. A lot more restaurants are on board and different people are taking to volunteering everyday," said Sinha.

The role of social media

So far, both Ghose and Sinha have spread the word through social media alone. A Facebook page which is constantly updated with pictures of each distribution in every city has garnered over 1300 likes in just 60 days.

" I have always wanted to give back to society but was unsure how. This is a great opportunity to do so. I saw the pictures and what had been achieved in Delhi and knew I wanted to be a part of it. It doesn't take much. Calcutta is a small city where we all know each other. A few phone calls convincing restaurant owners to give us their excess food is all it takes," says Surya Prakash, a resident in Kolkata.

Distributing food in Kolkata

Distributing food in Kolkata

How it's planning on scaling up

Clearly, the key to attaining scalability is using resources efficiently, which is why the army is now tying up with several caterers as the wedding season is coming up.

" There is massive wastage of food during weddings. We've already spoken to cateres who are more than willing to give us the extra food. In fact some are so keen on helping out that they've even agreed to cook fresh food separately just for the homeless," said Jaipuria.

Corporates can be roped in too

The biggest hurdle to scaling up is ensuring that the food doesn't go stale. This requires large scale refrigerating,one that cannot be achieved without funding.

" Since corporates are now mandated to spend 2 percent of their three-year annual average net profit towards CSR,tapping India Inc to sponsor meals and refrigerators is the next step. However, the army will not raise money from investors but urge them to sponsor specific projects," clarified Ghose.

While no names were divulged, already several corporates have agreed to sponsor meals and help in the operations.

Meanwhile, even though several of the people involved in the project are from Zomato, Ghose has so far refrained from using the online restaurant guide to promote the initiative but is confident that Zomato will step in when required.

" We are excited about the project's growth and the impact it has created. We will continue to encourage and provide support in any way possible," Pankaj Chaddah, Co-Founder & COO, Zomato told Firstpost.

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Updated Date: Oct 14, 2014 13:20:45 IST

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