Art on plates to end hunger

The Plated Project, an Indian social enterprise, creates limited edition art plates to put food on people’s plates.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

Chitresh Sinha heads the chlorophyll innovation lab, an award-winning collective that boasts an ecosystem of more than 800 global innovators. “One of the things that we decided when we started the lab was that every year we will launch one innovation-led IP of our own to solve a social problem,” says Chitresh.

Last year, while deciding to pick a problem that they can attempt to solve, the team raised the issue of hunger. On looking at the statistics, it revealed that hunger kills more people than malaria, AIDS and terrorism combined. “We realised that we live in a space where we see poverty and hunger all around us, and it has become a blind spot,” explains Chitresh.

The Plated Project was born from brainstorming for ideas on how to get conversations around hunger happen with people who aren’t actively looking to give to charity. Recognising the power of art to be a conversation starter, the team came up with the idea to put ‘art on a plate’, where the money generated from sales would be used to put food on someone’s plate.

They launched their first series back in June 2019 dubbed ‘A Quarter of Nostalgia’, which highlighted the child malnutrition problem in India and managed to sponsor 5,000 meals in the very first month. There has been no looking back since. The social enterprise has sponsored 175,000 meals in the last year alone.

INKLINE talks to founder Chitresh Sinha about the social enterprise, future plans and how they keep a pet project running successfully.

Founder Chitresh Sinha helms the team behind The Plated Project, an initiative by chlorophyll innovation lab.

INKLINE: Could you tell us how your model works? Do all the proceeds go to NGOs? How do you keep the whole thing sustainable?

Chitresh Sinha: The two measurable goals we had, one was can we use art to raise awareness about different aspects of hunger, with every series that we do, so that conversations happen. The second measurable objective was the number of plates we would sell. What we did as a business model in which we don’t pay any of our artists an upfront amount for creating the art. What we tell the artist is that we will work with them to curate a series, and every time a plate gets sold we will first donate about 50-60% of the profits to the charity and 25% of the remaining profit will be given to the artist. Then the initiative as an artist is obviously to make money, but they are also a part of this for the long-term.

I: There are several new collections on the site. Is there anything that is maybe closer to your heart?

C: We were working on a new series that we were going to launch in April of this year when the pandemic happened. Then the whole migrant crisis hit us. Out of the 140 million people who have lost their jobs in India, about 90-100 million of them are daily wage earners. When a daily wage earner loses their job, there are left with no savings and families starve. That is how we launched an entirely new series to support our migrant workers called ‘A Plate Full of Hope’. We reached out to artists worldwide and asked them to either share interesting work of theirs or to create new work which depicts hope during this time. There were artists from Indonesia, India, the US and the UK.

The Plated Project sponsored 150,000 meals to migrant works through the ‘A Plate Full of Hope’ campaign. A vivid dream by Hana Augustine.

We then went looking for sponsors to raise 100,000 meals. We told them to give us Rs 100,000 (~GBP 1,000) which would cover our production cost and in return, we would donate Rs 150,000 (~GBP 1,500) to the charity. It wasn’t just a charity bid, we were giving them a business offer.

The sponsors were then happy because they were like, Ok, instead of me directly donating to the charity, if I give these guys 1L they will donate 1.5L on my behalf. The artists were happy because this was for a good cause. And we were anyway not making any money on this, the entire price of the sale (Rs 1450 per plate) was donated to Goonj, an NGO which undertakes disaster relief, humanitarian aid and community development in the country. We managed to raise Rs 850,000 (~GBP 8,900) which sponsored about 150,000 meals.

I: How do you pick an NGO? How do you curate artists?

C: Every month we pick a theme first that we want to highlight and then we look at credible NGOs that exist, either looking at their track order or talking to people in the industry. Once we decide on an NGO, we tell them that we will be donating X amount to them this month. We make it clear that we don’t want any kind of partnership, just permission to use their name for our campaign. That keeps us free from any collaboration clashes or tie-ups, and it remains very neutral. Sometimes, charities reach out as well.

Dhruvi Shah is our Chief Curator and Head of Design. She is constantly looking at artists around the world on Instagram and Behance. Also, because of our Instagram community, a lot of artists reach out saying, I want to do something, are you open to it? So it works both ways. The only filter that we have is that the art style should be unique. We don’t have a filter that this artist should be well-known, that you need to be an Instagram influencer, as long as your art style is unique, we will work with you.

Living windows by Aashti Miller, New Beginnings.

I: Is online the only avenue you are exploring? In this pandemic age, it seems apt to continue this approach.

C: When we started a year back, we were experimenting with the idea of putting this up in restaurants. That’s where we thought that we are going and spending 3,000 bucks on a meal at one shot. Now, what about you buying the plate you are eating on or that you see in a restaurant. So that was where it started, but then it pivoted. We realised that when somebody is enjoying a meal, they don’t want to be reminded of things like this. So we decided that we will continue to do this to create awareness but that is not where people will buy.

Just before the pandemic, we were talking to a very large retail chain to do experiences with The Plated Project across their malls in India. That will hopefully work out once things resume. Right now, online is our main focus. But offline will come back, I don’t think it is going anywhere. This is also a category where you need to see the product. It is an impulse purchase. You see something very artsy, it is one plate, and it is not so expensive, people will say, I’ll donate right now.

I: On the site it says, 150,000+ meals sponsored and 100,000 rupees (~GBP 1,000) in funds raised. How happy are you with what you have achieved so far?

C: When we started, it was more of a social experiment. We didn’t even know whether it will work or not. So far we have done about 175,000 meals in total and have sold over 1,500 plates. It has never been and never will be about building a business first, it is more about an idea, that can we engage people and do something interesting. We are certainly happy with the way things are going.

The color of chillies by Roshan Gawand, New Beginnings.

I: What next for The Plated Project? Is there a new collection on the horizon?

C: The big thing right now is the ‘New Beginnings’ collection for Creative Dignity, where we are supporting the artisans of India. That is something we are excited about, and it has done phenomenally well. In the first 7 days, we’ve already sold what we had sold in the last month.

Next month we will be launching new products. So far it’s been one product, which is the decorative plate. We are going to launch a dinner collection, which you can actually eat on, and a few other products as well, all related to the central idea of art on plates and how can that be used to fill somebody else’s plate. In November, we will be launching another series around kids and malnutrition in India.

I: As you suggested earlier, all of you have a day job and this is something you do on the side. How do you do it?

C: Initially, we said, ok the team will work extra hours in the first few months of the launch because we need our day jobs to pay for this. All of us here are passionate about the project and happily volunteered to work 2-3 hours extra every day to get it off the ground. Now we are changing things, we have got team members working on this dedicatedly and getting a lot of the automation done so that when they go back to their day jobs it gets a lot easier to manage things. Also, we’ve been working a lot with interns and external partners, where they come onboard and launch things for us and run experiments and then we take over and scale it up.

By your side by Hana Augustine, New Beginnings.

But so far the balance has been at the people level. Kapil Goswami, for example, who handles all the logistics and manages the projects for us, during this pandemic, he has been sitting and packing things himself at home. He’s like, I know I have to do this, anything that we spend in this is money taken away from donations. It honestly comes down to the people. We’ve been really lucky that the right people at the right time came together.

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