Lessons Learnt in My Food Charity Experience: The Bombay Food Project, A Student’s Initiative
Sustainable Development Goals: 1, 2, 3, 4, 10
- SDG 1 - No Poverty
- SDG 2 - Zero Hunger
- SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
- SDG 4 - Quality Education
- SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
According to the United Nations, enough food is produced every day to feed 10 billion people. Yet, we are unable to feed the global population of 7.9 billion, and over 821 million people are chronically undernourished. At first glance, doesn’t it seem fairly simple? Channel the food being wasted to those in need. However, having been actively involved in the food charity sphere for three years now, I have realised that there is more to the problem than meets the eye. I believe that some of the lessons that I have learnt could benefit others working towards eradicating food insecurity and hunger.
I founded The Bombay Food Project in 2019 when I was in Grade 9, with the aim of making food more accessible to the marginalised and underprivileged, one stomach at a time.
Early on, I learnt that it is undignified to give people leftovers, regardless of their socio-economic background. One of our first initiatives was to collect leftover food from weddings and parties and distribute it amongst underprivileged children. While we received large volumes of food, the demand for it was not as strong as we expected, and we would rarely be able to distribute all the food. Moreover, I too would feel uneasy and guilty for providing leftover food to the underprivileged. Due to these reasons, we revised our strategy to provide only warm, fresh meals. We started weekly Roti (Indian bread) Collection Drives in six housing societies. The collected rotis would be served with warm vegetables to the underprivileged. We also adopted a Community Fridge, which is installed on the footpath and is easily accessible to anyone who needs fresh, healthy food, and stocked it with lunch meals thrice a week. Located near a government hospital teeming with patients, our fridge aimed to provide food to families of patients in that hospital.
In our interactions with the underprivileged while distributing food to them, I learnt that households require a sustainable, long-term source of food, rather than just a one-off meal. We had crowd-sourced meals for over 300 stranded migrant labourers in the initial lockdown in India due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While they were extremely grateful, they were still concerned about how they would feed themselves and their families the next day, week, and month. Learning from this experience, we launched our Ration Kit Collection Drive. A ration kit contains basic ingredients like rice, oil, and flour, and it feeds a family of five for over a month. This is in addition to our Roti Collection Drives that we have sustained for over 3 years.
Our most important learning was that simply providing food does not solve the problem of hunger, and it is important to address the underlying root causes of the problem. These include poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment. I had come across the Mid-Day Meal scheme in India, wherein students are provided free lunch meals in government schools, to incentivise parents to send their children to school. I found this idea very interesting and decided to implement a similar initiative with The Bombay Food Project. We started weekly Math and English classes near a slum for children aged 10-14 years and began using the rotis and vegetable collected in our weekly Roti Collection Drives as an incentive for parents to send their children for the classes. We believe that this scheme has been quite successful as our class of 15 students has an average attendance rate of 92%. Moreover, over the past 4 months, the average student performance in math tests (including concepts of operations with fractions and decimals, word problems, multiplication tables, among others) jumped from 60% to 93%. In fact, we are trying to arrange for school admission for one of our students, who stopped going to school due to disruption caused by the COVID-19 lockdown and health-related issues in her family. Furthermore, we are training and enrolling some of the students we teach for Math Olympiads and other competitions. Recently, we threw a Christmas-themed party for the slum-dwelling children, wherein we conducted a musical performance and played games like Christmas card-making contests, ‘Antakshari’ (an Indian game), among others. Such events sustain the students’ interest in the classes and attract even more children to join our classes.
Furthermore, constant engagement with the same group of people would be more effective than helping a larger group of people only once or twice. This is because it helps form personal connections with the people being helped and both parties become more invested in the process. Through the weekly teaching initiative, I have become friends with all the students and have learnt a lot about their academic strengths and weaknesses, as well as their personal lives. It is indeed heart-warming to see their excitement to learn, and we always see them sitting in anticipation at our teaching-spot 30 minutes before the class has started.
It is inspiring to see how The Bombay Food Project has blossomed from a mere concept to an initiative that has fed over 10,000 people. Over the years, we have slowly expanded the scope of our project, starting off with an anti-hunger aim and later adding education and entertainment of the underprivileged to our agenda. We have received tremendous support from the community around us, including our volunteers and donors, BMC government officials, Indian hockey and cricket superstars, as well as the media.
I have first-hand witnessed the effectiveness of a Mid-Day Meal-like scheme, and I strongly believe that foreign governments should implement such an initiative as it allows them to kill two birds, hunger (SDG 2) and illiteracy (SDG 4), with one stone, which inevitably reduces poverty (SDG 1). Especially in rural areas, it could change attitudes of parents towards the education of girls, which works towards bridging gender inequality (SDG 5). While government action is necessary to combat food insecurity, it is by no means enough. Greater citizen engagement is imperative. My experience with The Bombay Food Project has proven that today’s environment is extremely conducive for citizen-led and youth-led initiatives to fight hunger. Such initiatives can be more effective in some cases than government actions as they battle the issue at a more micro, grassroots level.