The Robin Hood Army: Fighting Food Waste in India and Pakistan
The Robin Hood Army are taking on food waste in India and Pakistan by redistributing food waste from restaurants and weddings and giving it to the hungry
The Robin Hood Army: Fighting Food Waste in India and Pakistan
By Dimple Vijaykumar / theguardian.com

Last August, a group of six young Indians took to the streets of Delhi with one simple aim: to feed the homeless. Overnight, they drove to restaurants, collected unsold food, re-packaged it and gave it to around 100 people sleeping rough in the capital.

For 27-year-old Neel Ghose, it was a wake-up call. Friends, colleagues and strangers soon joined them on drives and their numbers began to swell. In less than a few months, a nationwide volunteer movement known as the Robin Hood Army (RHA) had emerged, on a mission to curb food waste and stamp out hunger.

Founders Ghose and Anand Sinha, also 27, were inspired by Refood International, an organisation based in Portugal. “Using a hyperlocal model, they collect excess food and give it to those who need it. But every community has their own Refood chapter,” explains Ghose. “I realised it was something that can be very easily done in India, where the need would be much more.”

The movement gained huge momentum after the launch of its social media campaign, and now boasts a 500-strong volunteer base spread out across 13 cities, including Hyderabad, Mumbai and Kolkata. In April, the group also began operations in neighbouring Pakistan, where volunteer groups sprang up in Karachi and Lahore.

Food in car
 Volunteers get ready to distribute food packages throughout the city. Photograph: Robin Hood Army

“Our Facebook page has helped us get in touch with restaurants and our posts became a form of accountability,” says Sarah Afridi, a volunteer who helped set up the group in Pakistan. Ghose agrees: “We realised that we would be much more legitimate if we showed restaurants pictures of what we were doing. That’s when things took a huge leap forward.”

The Robin Hood Army’s ideology revolves around decentralisation. Small teams, mostly young professionals, become responsible for specific areas; they scout for local restaurants, convince them to donate surplus food, identify clusters of people in need – such as the homeless and orphanages – and carry out weekly distributions.

“Anand and I don’t have to be in cities physically to set up our presence,” says Ghose. “We simply guide people on how to form communities for the RHA.” Sinha adds: “What’s happening at a grassroots level is completely driven by the locals.”

In Delhi and the National Capital Region alone, some 30 restaurants have been involved with the project, sometimes not only offering leftover food but cooking fresh meals for distribution.

Lawyer Suvarna Mandal, 26, and head of RHA’s social media Aarushi Batra, 24, both volunteer in the city and have distributed everything from biryani and dhal to sweet treats like cakes, brownies and biscuits. While they may not always have the healthiest foods to hand out, Mandal says: “We don’t look into the nutritional aspects per se, we just try to fill their stomachs.”

“Some restaurant owners even join them on drives,” Ghose explains later. “In a way, they’re not just helping the Robin Hood Army, they are the Robin Hood Army.”

During the Indian wedding season, which takes place between November and January, RHA groups also worked with caterers to make sure large amounts of uneaten food would be picked up, no matter how late at night. “It’s no secret that weddings in India are huge,” Batra tells me. “In Hyderabad, four of our volunteers fed around 970 people just with excess food from one wedding.”

According to the Centre for Development Communication (CDC), an NGO in Jaipur, there are an estimated 7m weddings in India during the season. Yet nearly one-fifth of all prepared food is thrown away – a staggering £1.6bn in wastage.

Like the RHA, the CDC developed the Annakshetra initiative, which redistributes food leftover solely from weddings, festivals and other lavish social gatherings. It was set up in 2010 after founder Dr Vivek Agrawal saw children salvaging food from piles of discarded food dumped outside a town marriage hall: “The way food is eaten and wasted in weddings is an eye-opener for everybody,” he says.

Robin Hood
 An advert on Robin Hood Army’s Facebook page encourages more volunteers to join the movement. Photograph: Robin Hood Army

Ravi Dhingra, who helps run the foundation, says networks of volunteers collect excess food directly from events, store it in fridges overnight and check it is fit for consumption before organising handouts in the morning. In 2012, up to 10,000 were fed solely on leftovers from 16 weddings held on Akshaya Tritiya, a day considered auspicious for Hindus to tie the knot.

When asked about the RHA’s work, Dhingra tells me: “Pioneering efforts like [theirs] demonstrate enormous opportunities to reduce food waste — and enhance food security worldwide.”

Yet Dhingra and Ghose also believe that while their initiatives are making a difference, there has to be more sustainable ways to tackle widespread food poverty in south Asia. “Food donations are not the solution to food wastage or poverty, [but] food redistribution can help alleviate [its] impacts,” Dhingra says.

According to the most recent Global Hunger Index, while India no longer ranks second-to-last for having the world’s most underweight children, its overall hunger status is still classified as “serious”. Meanwhile, it remains home to a quarter of the world’s undernourished people yet it wastes more than £4bn worth of fruit and vegetables a year. Ghose is well aware of the scale of the problem: “Right now, we feed around 5,000 people a week ... In the bigger scheme of things, that’s still nothing.”

But with plans to expand into more areas and partnerships with university students in the pipeline, the RHA’s influence is poised to grow across the continent.

“We’re in an exciting time where more people want to bridge gaps in society,” Sinha says. “Through social media and through our volunteers, we can channel this energy and create something stronger out of this. The Robin Hood Army is just the beginning.”

Join our community of development professionals and humanitarians.
Follow
@GuardianGDP on Twitter.

3.5 ·
1
What's Next
Trending Today
93 Documentaries to Expand Your Consciousness
Films For Action · 8,250 views today · There are over 800 documentaries now cataloged in our library of social change films. That's probably way too many for any mortal to ever watch in a lifetime, let alone a few...
This Short Film Plays Out Like an Epic Movie That Will Shake Your Soul - But the Movie Is Real, and We are The Actors
6 min · 4,461 views today · For next year, we need a resolution capable of confronting the crisis we face, and making a future worth fighting for. This short film looks back on the crisis and confusion...
Social Media Echo Chambers: Here's How Most of Us are Living in One
2 min · 3,421 views today · Americans are blocking out the friends and news sites that won't confirm their views.
The Daily Show's Trevor Noah Talks With Conservative Host Tomi Lahren
14 min · 3,357 views today · "Tomi" host Tomi Lahren gives her take on the Black Lives Matter movement and explains why she lashed out against Colin Kaepernick for his national anthem protest.
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 3,156 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 3,080 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Why We Need Big Picture Activism
Helena Norberg-Hodge · 2,218 views today · Despite the countless grassroots projects already under way, the global economic juggernaut can seem too powerful to stop. But because more and more of us are becoming aware of...
Escape! From the Cult of Materialism (2016)
50 min · 1,793 views today · Does the philosophy of materialism work to destroy our identities, experience, and environment? Join narrator Daphne Ellis on a radical romp through the evidence and decide for...
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 1,664 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
Who's Really to Blame for Fake News? Look in the Mirror, America.
Neal Gabler · 1,154 views today · Consider for a moment the oxymoronic concept of “fake news,” which we have been hearing so much about lately. This isn’t your typical disinformation or misinformation —...
How a Land High in the Western Himalayas Can Help Us Understand The Crisis of The Modern World
9 min · 1,149 views today · This is a clip from The Economics of Happiness. Watch it here. It's a brilliant film that was easy to put at the top of our list of the top 100 documentaries we can use to...
Bernie Sanders: Carrier Just Showed Corporations How to Beat Donald Trump
Bernie Sanders · 1,103 views today · We need a president who can stand up to big corporations, not fold to their demands.
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 936 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Law Professor's Epic Response to Black Lives Matter Shirt Complaint
Social Design Notes · 888 views today · A first year law school student wrote a complaint about her professor having worn a Black Lives Matter T-shirt during class. The professor’s response is priceless. Scans of...
South Koreans Are Really Good at Protesting
2 min · 851 views today · South Koreans organize some of the largest and most peaceful protests in the world. Here's what makes them so good at protesting.
The Most Mind-Altering Photograph of All Time
4 min · 772 views today · Carl Sagan narrates the story of the Pale Blue Dot, the one place we all call home. 
Corporate Giants' "Sustainable" Palm Oil Revealed as Sham
Nika Knight · 631 views today · Nestlé, Kellogg's, Procter & Gamble, Unilever and others are linked to child labor and forced labor in Indonesia
The 6 Grand Illusions That Keep Us Enslaved
Sigmund Fraud · 604 views today · For a magician to fool his audience his deceit must go unseen, and to this end he crafts an illusion to avert attention from reality. While the audience is entranced, the...
What Humans Are Really Doing to Our Planet, in 19 Jaw-Dropping Images
Michael McCutcheon · 580 views today · Last week, Pope Francis and church officials encouraged everyone to consume less and think more about our impact on the environment. It's a timely warning because the next six...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 410 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
The Robin Hood Army: Fighting Food Waste in India and Pakistan