There is an army of Robin Hoods spread across different cities in India. And even in Pakistan. They are seen dressed in green, much like their namesake – a heroic outlaw in English folklore. And they go out at night, fighting hunger with a powerful weapon – food.
It all started with a group of six people in Delhi – youngsters with a simple yet firm purpose in mind. They wanted to bridge the gap between two extremes – wastage of immense amounts of food and the presence of acute hunger. A conduit was needed to funnel the excess food to those who needed it. And this is where they came in. They planned to pick up the leftover food from different restaurants at dinner time and distribute it among the hungry.
This group of six named itself the Robin Hood Army (RHA), and an army is what it has grown to today with 1000 volunteers on its rolls. They are spread out across 18 cities and have served more than 2.5 lakh people so far.
“But the journey has only begun,” says the co-founder of RHA, 27-year-old Neel Ghose.
An employee of a global restaurant search and discovery service, Neel was in Portugal when he first came across an organization called Refood. “These guys have a very simple model – they collect excess food from restaurants and give it to the needy,” says Neel. He spent a lot of time with Hunter Halder, the founder of Refood, and also volunteered with his team to understand their operations. There was only one thing on Neel’s mind – “Why can’t we do this back home in India?” And so, on returning to Delhi, he got in touch with his friend and colleague, Anand Sinha, to start something similar.
Thus began the journey of the Robin Hood Army.
The volunteers at RHA reach out to restaurants and wedding caterers in different cities, talk to them and help them understand their mission. From among those who agree, they collect the excess food left over at the end of the day, package it into meal packets, and go out to distribute them among the underprivileged. This is done mostly on weekends as most volunteers are working professionals.
In August 2014, Neel and Anand’s small group had started RHA by feeding about 150 people. But now, the Robin Hoods have expanded their field of operation.
“Back in the day, we would distribute food only among the homeless. But now we are going deeper to see who are the other people who need food. For example, in Bangalore, there are not that many homeless people as compared to the rest of the country. So here we started reaching out to orphanages and old age homes,” says Neel.
While 80% of RHA’s activities deal with food, the organization also takes up different projects from time to time. For instance, in the winter of 2014, the team in Delhi distributed blankets to the poor, potentially saving many lives that may have perished from the extreme cold on the streets of the capital.
RHA is divided into many chapters in different cities – Delhi has seven chapters, Mumbai nine, and so on. Every chapter is run by a dedicated team, with a chapter head.
They operate on and organize themselves mostly through WhatsApp and private Facebook groups.
“We meet at a central place, collect the food, pack it into meals if not done by restaurants, and go to the places which we have already scouted earlier. Scouting basically means that we keep an eye on regions which have clusters of people who will need food.”
Those who wish to volunteer with RHA can write to them expressing interest and the central team that manages volunteers will put them in touch with the concerned chapter head.
Volunteers can also offer to start new chapters rather than join existing ones.
The team has created a DIY kit which guides people to set up a chapter from scratch.
Social media has been the biggest source of volunteers for RHA so far. According to Neel, there are no set guidelines for the Robin Hoods, except for two important thumb rules:
• Funds: No one is allowed to take funds from anyone in the name of RHA. Why so? “We are crowdsourced to such an extent that people setting up chapters are those who we might not have met even once. So there is a very big chance of things going wrong,” explains Neel. When people do want to donate funds, they are asked to buy things like blankets and donate those instead.
• Quality of food: The team ensures that the food is cooked not more than six hours before it is collected, and is distributed within two hours after collection. They also sample check the food and taste it at the time of collection.
The founder gives a lot of credit to the restaurant owners:
“The reason RHA has succeeded so much is because of how amazing the restaurant owners are. They have been super proactive. Almost all the packaging is taken care of by the restaurants themselves. Most of them even insist that they don’t just want to package and give out excess food but also want to contribute with freshly cooked food.”
RHA also has chapters in four cities in Pakistan. They were started by Neel’s friend Sarah, who came across the initiative on social media.
“We started on a very small scale there, but now Karachi is one of our most efficient chapters,” says Neel.
The average age of volunteers in both countries is between 23 and 30. However, some of RHA’s most enthusiastic volunteers are 50-year-olds. And the youngest Robin Hood is a 5-year-old boy in Kolkata who comes to every single distribution in his chapter.
Neel and Anand are now trying to reach out to schools and colleges across the country.
“We realised that if we reach out to people who might have much more energy and time than us, there is no telling how far this idea could go.”
But will this solve the hunger problem in the country?
“I am very confident that the idea of RHA is inspiring communities to give back. In Mumbai, there was one Robin Hood who is a karate instructor. He has now started taking karate lessons for the kids of the families he feeds. So the idea is to inspire people around us who are much more qualified than us to give back for the greater good. When that happens, there will surely be an answer to the hunger problem too in the long run,” concludes Neel.