As Guna Sekaran and Ashwin Narayan unload the food packets, a small crowd gathers, mostly of children under 12. They seem shy, almost retreating. But as the packets are handed out, a bit of jostling begins and their eyes light up at the sight of what’s inside — four chapatis and a generous portion of mixed vegetable. Wordlessly, they sit on the floor and tuck in.
“I haven’t eaten anything since morning,” 11-year-old Neha Kaneria says in between mouthfuls as she also feeds her little brother. Their mother, a domestic help, doesn’t have the time to cook for them most days, she lets in.
It’s the same for most of the children here at this temple basement in Noida Sector 55, where they attend an informal school. Sekaran, 28, and Narayan, 27, are volunteers with No Food Waste, a social start-up working to address urban hunger.
The lunch packs they are distributing are leftovers donated by a woman who runs a student accommodation.
No Food Waste has a mobile app of the same name that allows it to crowd source data on hunger spots in India and take requests for donation of excess food. The app has identified 80 such spots in Delhi and the national capital region. “This temple is one of them,” says Sekaran.
“Anyone can pinpoint a place as a hunger spot on our app, and our team verifies it and updates our database. Individuals can directly donate food or request us, through the app, to collect and distribute it, which we do through our volunteers,” says No Food Waste’s 23-year-old founder Padmanaban Gopalan.
Like No Food Waste, many social start-ups founded by young Indians are using technology to feed the poor. Feeding India is one such organisation that feeds 15,000 people in 25 Indian cities, including 2,500 in Delhi. It says it gets around 100 requests for excess food pick-up every day in the Capital.
Ankit Kawatra, 24, built the Feeding India App that allows the user to fill in the quantity of food to be donated, the number of people it can feed, and the expected pick-up time.
Feeding India has 450 volunteers (it calls them hunger heroes) in Delhi who pick up and deliver food across 12 zones. “Whenever we get a request, the pick-up is assigned to the nearest volunteer. We are trying to promote hyper local food donation through technology, we believe people should be able to donate to the needy within 5km. It will help fight hunger,” says Kawatra.
Most of these start-ups have partnered with restaurants, hostels, caterers and corporate houses to collect excess food every day, which is then delivered to orphanages, old age homes, shelters and so on.
“Every item has a different shelf life and we do a strict quality check and ensure the food collected is delivered within 90 minutes to the needy,” says Kawatra.
He decided to start Feeding India after he was horrified by the waste of food at a wedding. “There were around 35 dishes, and I wondered what would happen to so much food. I stayed back and what I saw horrified me. Heaps of leftovers, enough to feed 10,000 people, was trashed. So much waste at one wedding in a city that has millions of hungry people.”
Kawatra isn’t exaggerating. Nearly 50% of under-6 slum children in the world’s fastest growing major economy are malnourished, according to a 2015 study by Child Rights And You (CRY). The same year, India took the 80th spot among 104 countries on the Global Hunger Index, ranking lower than Bangladesh, North Korea and Myanmar.
Kuldip Nar, who founded Delhi Food Banking Network, says the answer to dealing with urban hunger lies in creating a supply chain of sustained feeding, and technology can play a big role in it.
“We collect non-perishable food items — pulses, rice, flour — and provide one nutritional meal every day to 10,000 people at 43 feeding sites in Delhi-NCR,” he says.
Nar’s organisation works with NGOs who collect the food from its warehouse in Gurgaon and do the cooking on site. “Most of our food comes from individual donations,” he says.
A Delhi Food Banking Network app is in the works, and Nar plans to expand to Kolkata later this month.
Dipa Sinha of The Right To Food Campaign — which describes itself as an informal network of organisations and individuals committed to the realisation of the right to food — says that while these tech-driven feeding programmes are a “good initiative”, they can only be a temporary measure.
“Charity cannot be a solution to fighting hunger. Besides, there is the issue of dignity associated with the donation of leftover food. The real solution lies in creating skills and livelihood opportunities,” she says.
But for the time being, the hungry legions whose hopes of one square meal a day rest on these start-ups are a grateful lot. Angelia, who lives with her husband and three children in a government shelter in Munirka, says the Delhi Food Banking Network has been feeding the 30-odd migrant families here for three years. A part-time maid, she earns Rs 2,000 a month while her daily-wager husband makes Rs 150 a day. “This is not enough to feed a family of five. So, the free lunch we get is of great help. But given the choice, I would like to cook my own food,” she says.