In a country where millions go hungry, reports that food worth Rs 44,000 crore ends up in garbage bins every year, is a crying shame. At parties, weddings, and other functions, where large quantities of food find their way into the trash can, most of us barely flash a thought towards those in need.
Not HR Rajendra, though. Six years ago, this central government employee began to lead efforts to collect excess food from marriage halls, restaurants, party halls and hotels located in Mysuru, Karnataka, and distribute it to beggars, orphanages, construction sites, and slums around the city of Mysuru.
In a bid to fulfill his wish that no one in the city goes hungry, Rajendra today leads a small band of volunteers through his non-profit Akshaya Aahara Foundation (AAF), which he started in October 2012. What was the inspiration behind this initiative?
Speaking to The Better India, Rajendra mentions an incident that occurred a few months before he established AAF and was the turning point for him.
He was returning home from a wedding and saw all the excess food being thrown into the dustbin. The following day, he saw street urchins eating surplus food out of a trash can. He was distressed by what he had seen, and his conscience couldn’t bear the thought of so much food going to waste when one could distribute it to those who go hungry.
Thus, Rajendra began personally collecting and distributing food to beggars near the Mysuru railway station and a local bus stand. He noted down the details of the beggars who would operate there and where they resided. In addition, he also started giving away his contact number to hotels, choultries and restaurants, requesting them to hand over the leftover food.
Before he undertook this initiative, he had planned to construct a new house for the family. However, now he has decided to spend his savings to recruit volunteers and purchase vehicles to distribute food. Since Rajendra works five days a week at a central government office, all his evenings and weekends are dedicated to the mission.
The AAF, though, receives calls from 7:30 am to 11:00 pm. “My wife, Shweta, was working as a librarian for the past few years. Now she has quit her job to take care of the food collection and distribution activities on weekdays while I attend office,” says Rajendra, speaking to The Better India. To help his wife, Rajendra has employed two food van drivers and two assistants who aid the process of collecting and distributing food.
In the beginning, the non-profit would receive a couple of calls, but today it receives close to 50-60 requests a day. The number of calls spike during the marriage season in Mysuru. When Rajendra is at work, all the calls are forwarded to his wife, who directs operations to collect and distribute food. Even his children support his initiative during their holidays.
“Presently we have two food vans. We pay approximately Rs 10,000 and Rs 8,000 per month to the driver and assistant respectively. Fuel costs for each van come to approximately Rs 3,000 per month. Meanwhile, maintenance, vehicle insurance, mobile phone rentals all taken together come to an average of Rs 5,000 per month,” says Vishwanath A, a senior volunteer at AAF.
The non-profit has also rented out a small place in Mysuru, and it is used as an office-cum-resting place for the drivers and assistants. On the whole, AAF spends approximately Rs 55,000-60,000 per month to run this food wastage prevention initiative with the current infrastructure in place.
“Our focus is very clear—waste not, want not. We cannot afford to waste a single morsel of prepared food. The greatest challenge is to collect surplus prepared food at odd times (lunch surplus food around 3:00 to 5:00 pm, dinner surplus food around 10:00 to 11:30 pm). You must understand that collecting food is not an end in itself. Distributing them in the nearby areas to the needy is a challenging and physically strenuous job,” he stresses.
The foundation has given away its contact details to many marriage halls, restaurants, orphanages, hotels, party halls and whenever they have surplus food, they get in touch. AAF has also identified slum pockets—areas outside government hospitals and orphanages—besides other different locations across Mysuru, where they can distribute this surplus food.
“The closest destination (if not served earlier in the day or the previous night) is selected, and the food is transported in our food van. We have jumbo sized vessels of different sizes to collect sambar, plain rice, biriyani/pulav, sweets, and cooked vegetables and other culinary dishes. Sometimes, the caterers provide spare banana leaves for serving food to the recipients.
If they cannot, we buy banana leaves from the market and carry them in our vans. The number of times we distribute depends upon the number of calls we get and the amount of food we get from one source. So, we decide upon our destination based on the quantity of surplus food, the size of the slum pocket and the commuting distance,” says Vishwanath, speaking to The Better India.
Aside from AAF, Rajendra also visits schools and colleges to spread awareness about preventing food waste, while motivating the students and faculty to volunteer in the non-profit whenever time permits. Next on the radar for Rajendra is the “Seeing Hands and Caring Minds‟ initiative, under which he hopes to serve surplus food to the physically challenged or senior citizens living alone.
However, such yeoman service to society costs money, and Rajendra’s salary and savings, aren’t enough to sustain it. “Any support, both monetary and material, are most welcome,” says Rajendra.
You can get in touch with Rajendra on 9148987375 or Vishwanath A on 9004357307.
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(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)