A girl on a bike delivering meals to medical workers in Pune. Two young women with regular jobs cooking food for Covid patients in Bengaluru. A bunch of volunteers out every day to feed the homeless and the hungry. At a time when it’s safest to stay home, there are hundreds of people in the towns and cities of India going out of their way to make sure that no one starves even as they battle the pandemic. Sounds heroic, but what does it really take?
Spurred by a crisis….
Mumbai-based non-profit, Khaana Chahiye, started in March 2020 when the first lockdown was announced across the nation. Started by a small team and a pilot project that provided 1200 meals to people along the Western Express Highway, the initiative has expanded greatly through crowdfunding, donations as well as an ever-growing volunteer base.
“Last year, even as we distributed food, we quickly realised that the problem was much bigger than any of us imagined,” says co-founder Ruben Mascarenhas. From a one-time relief effort, they pivoted their efforts towards doing what they could to eliminate hunger. With funding by big corporates, they have managed to feed over 6 lakh migrant workers as well as other vulnerable sections of the society who have no means to cook at home.
While Khaana Chahiye has scaled up its operations over one year, there are individuals who are joining the collective fight against COVID-19. Pune-based home chef Aakanksha Sadekar was spurred into action as the situation worsened in her city. “I saw a tweet from a doctor who said that he was going to have to make do with Maggi after his 12-hour shift in a COVID ward because online deliveries had been curtailed. This really moved me especially, since my own brother is a doctor, and propelled me to do something,” she says. She started off delivering food to medical students and then expanded to other medical frontline workers as well as migrants. Today, aided by donations and community support, she along with a team, has managed to feed over 5,000 people in less than a month.
As the pandemic reached a crisis point in Bengaluru earlier this month, flatmates Poorva Joshi and Sanyukta Dharmadhikari realised that being proactive was better than doom scrolling. And so, despite not being in the business of food, they started cooking and delivering meals to those who didn’t have easy access to it.
Doctors, sex-workers and seniors—no one goes hungry
Ruben’s team has focussed its attention on those with limited means. “While our target is essentially the homeless, we’ve also been assisting a lot of daily wage labourers and workers from the informal sector, who don’t have the means to feed themselves. These include boot polish workers, commercial sex workers, transgenders and circus artists.”
Aakanksha and her team have two target groups. To doctors and medical students, she provides one nutritious meal a day from her own kitchen. She also sends out food to migrant labourers and others working on the frontlines—these are prepared at a commercial kitchen that she has leased for this purpose.
Poorva and Sankyukta cook for Covid patients. “There are people living in other cities who need food delivered for their families who are sick.” Since many third-party delivery services like Swiggy and Dunzo are overburdened, or may not be functional due to the guidelines, they mostly try to deliver the food themselves.
Please share, and please, please feel free to reach out. We’re in this together ❤ https://t.co/qYPwVTCrKe
— Poorva Joshi (@poorvajoshi93) April 22, 2021
It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible
Aakanksha began small, cooking for about 10 people in her own kitchen. “I remember this line by Majrooh Sahaab: ‘Log aate gaye, karvaan banta gaya’ (People kept coming along and the caravan kept growing). If anyone wants to help, they just need to get started and a way emerges,” she says. Gradually, she was joined by other home cooks and also managed to hire out a kitchen space to scale up operations.
It is this idea of helping out that persists across all these initiatives, no matter their scale. Khaana Chahiye’s systems are structured in a way to reach out to the maximum number of people. Apart from distribution of food packets, their community model focuses on enabling kitchens within different localities and providing raw materials and finances to help them function.
Since both Poorva and Sanyukta work from home, they operate within a specific time frame and dedicate their evenings for cooking and delivering before the night curfew sets in. Cooking for fewer people was manageable within the resources they had. But once their orders increased to eight people a day, their colleagues also pitched in and sent a few supplies. They cap their meals to 10 per day since it’s just the two of them.
What’s on the menu?
Khaana Chahiye’s community kitchens and food production work in line with the relevant safety standards, while also focusing on the quality and nutritional value of the food. They have a pre-decided weekly menu. The food is cooked, weighed and packed by their vendors, after which volunteers distribute the packages once or twice a day. They cover the entire Mumbai Metropolitan Region region, including Thane, Navi Mumbai, Kalyan and other areas.
For the smaller batches of food that are prepared in her own kitchen, Aakanksha serves home-cooked dishes like rajma chawal and chole and veggies depending on what is available in the market. “Whatever we eat at home on a particular day is cooked in large quantities and that is what we send out.” For the larger numbers of dabbas that are sent out, they have a fixed variety of rice-based preparations. For the migrant population which hails from South India, Bengal, and Bihar, these rice preparations work well. The deliveries are done by her, her team members as well as many volunteers across Pune.
Poorva and Sanyukta cook meals that are mostly rice-based accompanied by sabzis and dal. On some days it’s khichdi and a salad. “The meals are simple, nutritious and easy to digest for someone who’s not in the best of health,” she says. They do about three drops every evening within a 15-20 minute radius of their home in Frazer Town, Benson Town and Nandi Durga Road.
No compromise on safety
Aakanksha makes her deliveries on her bike and is assisted by her team members as well as volunteers sourced through Twitter. “These are people who get in touch offering their help and they show up at the designated time and place in order to help us with deliveries.” Her only criteria is that no one posts any pictures of their work and focuses on what they do instead. The team ensures that they wear double masks and gloves while out on the streets.
At Khaana Chahiye, the volunteers are well equipped with N-95 masks, face shields, gloves and sanitizers, so that no one’s safety is compromised. “Most of us don’t interact with our parents since we are out on the streets. While most of us are vaccinated by BMC as frontline workers, it is still complex and physically tiring coordinating an operation like this across Mumbai,” says Ruben. “The good part is that because we’re a volunteer-driven organisation and a lot of volunteers take ownership of their respective communities, the distribution is a lot easier.”
The biggest learning
“Being out on the streets distributing food can be extremely humbling. We all live in our bubbles of privilege. It’s only when we step out do we realize how stark a reality hunger and poverty are. In the midst of this, we still see people trying to help each other. When we distribute food to people, they ensure that even though food is limited, they share the food with other members of their community. So it’s great to see that despite such a difficult time, people still haven’t given up on humanity.” says Ruben.
Want to help?
- To Donate to Khaana Chahiye’s efforts, click here
- To order food for COVID-19 patients in the Benson Town area in Bengaluru, call Poorva Joshi at 9867138363 or DM Sanyukta on Twitter @dramadhikari
- Call Aakanksha Sadekar at 9967869613 or donate here to help people get a meal in Pune
All these meal services are free and volunteer-based