Meet the heroes fighting India’s hunger woes

In just five years, Feeding India has served more than 18 million meals. The non-profit is well on its way to feeding a million people a month.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

Feeding India founder Ankit Kawatra with a group of children during a food drive in Mumbai. © Feeding India

The number of undernourished people in the world today is estimated to be 821 million, which means that 1 in every 9 people in the world goes to bed hungry every night.

According to the latest State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the absolute number of undernourished people, i.e. those facing chronic food deprivation, has increased for the third year in a row from around 804 million in 2016 to 821 million in 2017.

For all the development happening in the world today, it is ironic that world hunger is still on the rise. Then maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a ‘developing nation’ like India has 194 million people who are undernourished, which makes for almost a quarter of all the undernourished people in the world.

“Few people actually know the magnitude of the problem in India and what kind of impact it has on the unemployment rates, the cycle of poverty and a lot of the crime too,” says Ankit Kawatra.

At the age of 22, Ankit Kawatra quit his well-paying job and a growing career at an MNC to do something which he felt is more important- making India a hunger and food-waste free nation.

Ankit founded Feeding India back in 2014 when it started as a door-to-door delivery service. Today, with more than 8500 volunteers and their presence growing to 100+ cities in the country, Feeding India is a growing force with the mission to end world hunger.

We talk to Ankit Kawatra about his ambitions, why he wants to eventually shut down Feeding India and more.

Pathways to Zero Hunger Event
Ankit Kawatra speaking at the Pathways to Zero Hunger event at the United Nations. © Ankit Kawatra

INKLINE: From a door-to-door delivery service in 2014 to now have served 18 million meals, that is some sort of success surely?

Ankit Kawatra: Success is, of course, a relative term. Serving 18 million meals is a fantastic number. But for me the idea has always been that India is a country which has 194 million people who do not have food to eat, how do we solve that problem? As a person who was brought up studying management, my outlook of the non-profit sector has been very different. I don’t see charity solving most of India’s or the world’s social problems, it needs a sustainable solution.

What we realised from the beginning is that we are not a conventional non-profit that wants to just sit and keep doing an activity in one geography and do that for 100 years and make a legacy out of it. We want to end up closing the organisation down because the organisation is not needed anymore and hunger is ending. That’s the ultimate goal. We do not want to keep running Feeding India.

It is about reaching out to folks who do not have food, children who currently are food-insecure and giving them food as an incentive for their education so that they become self-sufficient and they can be reduced from that huge 194 million number. And, we are successfully doing that with a lot of folks, almost a million now. But there is still a long way to go.

Feeding India’s volunteers creating awareness at a rally in Mumbai. © Feeding India

I: So, you have an app, you have donors, take us through how it all works?

A: We basically collect food from any place that could have extra food – restaurants, caterers, events, corporate cafeterias, colleges, schools, factories – any place that has a mess and people get together and eat.

We have a team of volunteers. We literally started as a voluntary movement and are now in 65 cities and going to be in 100 very soon. We call our volunteers ‘hunger heroes’, they help raise awareness amongst communities of restaurants to donate excess food. We then collect extra food from food donors, free of cost, and then we go out and serve people in need.

Feeding India’s volunteers are called ‘Hunger Heroes’. © Feeding India

And, we are able to bridge that gap based on geography. If there is a restaurant in Indira Nagar in Bangalore which has excess food left, we already map a hunger spot according to zones in India, so we are able to donate to the nearest location according to the kind of food that is needed there.

One of the ways we do this through volunteers and the other is now we have systematically started running our own vans. We have also started running some kitchens and fridges and a couple of other programmes to really make it powerful and be able to quality check the entire food cycle when we are picking up food.

I: How large is your team and how dependent are you on volunteers?

A: The team has always been small, we are eight right now. The way we look at it is we work a lot with volunteers and I think that is one of our core competencies. And the way Feeding India volunteers work is very structured and very different from any other organisation.

Volunteers are basically folks who are passionate about bringing about a change, who decide that they have some free time and they would like to contribute. We help channelise that energy, for instance, if someone has a deep passion for tech or commerce, we try to channelise that energy in the right manner.

So it comes down to our core team of volunteers who work in a very professional way and we are able to get a lot of work done without being able to spend a lot. The example we want to set is that eight people sitting in a room can solve hunger in India.

We want to end up closing the organisation down because the organisation is not needed anymore and hunger is ending. That’s the ultimate goal.

I: Feeding India is a not-for-profit organisation. How do you get your work funded?

A: When we started out, it was all my life savings going in, whatever I had earned in my two years of working a corporate job. I was able to feed thousands of people but for being able to serve a million meals I realised that we need to get people together and contribute.

To give you an idea about the way in which we do funding, we don’t think money solves everything. If one crore comes into our account, we don’t celebrate that, what we celebrate is ‘connected capitalism’ as we call it.

Connected capitalism is basically to approach companies according to our need. So, for example, for food containers we approached Tupperware; we asked them to pledge 1% or 0.1% of their annual sales to give us containers for free and they were very happy to do that. They are experts in that field and so they are able to help us even more.

Rajendra drives one of Feeding India’s Magic Wheels van in Mumbai. © Feeding India

I: What has been the biggest challenge for you so far?

A: In the beginning, one of the biggest challenges starting out was age. I remember when I’d go out to meeting rooms and there were CEO’s sitting around, and you know they don’t want to listen to a 20-year-old talking about how India can purge hunger.

Ankit at a panel discussion on “The Road Ahead for Zero Hunger” at the UN Social Media Zone. © Ankit Kawatra

One of the major challenges we face even today is about people not understanding the cause. I think one of the biggest misconceptions people have or what people generally have a doubt over is the quality of food being donated. If they donate excess food, they are not sure how it would be handled and that gap in awareness seems to be a massive challenge that is holding big FMCG companies and hotel chains from coming forward.

The ability to give hope is something very uplifting, that is a big driving factor for us.

I: What about the rewarding bits along the way? How have you kept yourself going?

A: I think the most rewarding experience has been knowing that people are receiving food because of you.

I get this call almost every day, that there is n number of people who have been displaced and that they have nowhere to go. Imagine someone has just chucked you out of the house and you have nowhere to go, what is an individual going to do with his two little girls and his wife?

“Why Feeding India?” Here is why. #happiness ©Feeding India

I think the biggest upliftment is being able to support these individuals who are food-insecure and seeing that impact, seeing that upliftment and that hope coming in. When they receive food and they get this kind of help, they are able to have a dream for themselves, they are able to at least think that they would one day become something and work towards it. The ability to give hope is something very uplifting, that is a big driving factor for us.

The best thing about stopping hunger is that everybody can help.

I: What is next for Feeding India?

A: I’ve been caught saying that I want to end hunger in my lifetime, I think that itself is crazy ambitious. But I think by March, Feeding India will be able to feed a million people a month and that is the first small milestone that we will be celebrating.

The other is, in a couple of months we will be going global. We are starting out in a couple of neighbouring countries – so it is not just going to be India, it is going to be several communities across several countries, several cultures.

I: What would you like to tell our readers? What can they do to end to hunger?

A: The best thing about stopping hunger is that everybody can help. No matter what age, where you come from, what you do, you can always help.

If you are in the food industry, I think the first thing to stop wasting food, encouraging people who come to your restaurants to not waste food and donating it to people in need.

If you are not in the food industry, it is about not wasting food at your own end. Be sensitive towards wasting food at any place, be it weddings, restaurants or get-togethers or parties. Just make a simple call and donate it to people in need.

And if you want to contribute more, come forward, volunteer, donate, whichever way you can contribute. The country really needs everyone to step up.

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