SAVE FOOD: Iniciativa mundial sobre la reducción de la pérdida y el desperdicio de alimentos

"My continuous, persistent dream is to see hunger ended in my lifetime" – Meet the 26-year-old behind 9.5 million meals in India

© Ankit Kawatra
05 Jan 2018

Indian weddings are a celebration of life. For some families, few expenses are spared for an average of five to six days as floral garlands and mounds of traditional cuisines, a centre-piece of Indian culture, are prepared to satisfy crowds that can swell well into the thousands. And while large groups of friends and extended family are invited, even larger amounts of food are typically prepared -- up thirty percent more than required. Needlessly, these celebrations contribute to a jarring food waste problem on this massive sub-continent where an estimated ten million weddings and millions of other celebrations take place annually. It was at the nuptials of a Bollywood star, massive in scale that a then 22-year-old Ankit Kawatra witnessed first-hand the staggering food waste taking place in his native Delhi. “I was conscious of food waste but never truly grasped the gravity of the issue until I saw the vast quantities of food that were thrown out after this event. It could have easily fed ten thousand hungry people in India, I knew then that I had to work towards this issue,” said Kawatra.

“For a lot of people, spending lavishly on events like weddings and festivals are tied to the perception of wealth and status. It is challenging to convince people to cook less food or to have more modest guest lists. In any given setting, you usually invite as many as you can and cook up to a third extra. Otherwise, it may be assumed that you are not well off,” said Kawatra in a recent interview with FAO's SAVE FOOD Team. Selected as the 2017 UN Young Leader for SDGs, Kawatra also spoke recently on food waste and Zero Hunger at the Agriculture Action Day organized by FAO and partners at COP23 held in Bonn in November, 2017. 

Since starting his non-profit in 2015, Kawatra and his team at Feeding India have organised more than 9.5 million meals, due in part to a vast network of volunteers, spanning the length and breadth of the country. Feeding India works with restaurants, supermarkets, caterers and households to distribute excess food to people in need. What started out as a passion project inspired by food waste, eventually led him to resign from his job in Delhi’s bustling corporate sector. At the time, he says, many believed he made a huge mistake. In only two years, under Kawatra's direction Feeding India has blossomed into the largest youth-run food re-distribution NGO in India. In 2017, Kawatra was awarded the Queen's Young Leader Award from Her Majesty the Queen at the Buckingham Palace, London, in recognition for his contribution to feeding the hungry in his home country.

Despite a raft of early achievements, the obstacles faced by Kawatra and his team are massive, many of them are rooted in poor information as well as more entrenched cultural practices.

“The first couple of businesses I visited did not understand the benefit of not wasting food. Many people are not very knowledgeable about how food systems work, where food comes from, and the money and time that go into producing food items.” 

However, perceptions are gradually shifting. India, Kawatra believes, is an emotional country, and one where messages about helping the poor can help drive food redistribution. “All the major religions and spiritual systems in India are deeply tied to charity and people feel emotionally connected to helping their neighbours”. In Sikhism, one of our major religions, the concept of Langar or ‘community kitchen’ is heavily practised. It is quite common to see meals prepared at the side of the road, randomly feeding passersby or those in need. “In various traditions in India, we believe food ‘resembles’ God, or reflects the beauty and benevolence of the divine. Food comes from the farm, from the land and our traditions teach us that this should be valued.  A lot of our social behaviour change work involves merely reminding people of these values,” Kawatra shared. 

Narratives of personal responsibility, lie at the heart of Feeding India’s awareness-raising campaigns targeting communities. Food waste prevention through re-distribution is ‘everybody’s problem’. “We believe that people should shoulder re-distribution at their levels, whether it be a caterer or family, everyone has some potential to redistribute safe excess food.” While Feeding India acts as a facilitator, the meals, distribution and other activities are primarily decentralised through a network of thousands of individual volunteers, as well as businesses, religious and cultural groups.

Youth as agents of change

Kawatra and his team are in the foreground of a social revolution in India, led by youth in a country with the highest number of young people in the world. “They are bearers of change, the state of the world in thirty years will depend on the opportunities afforded to the youngest people today,” said Kawatra. As of November 2017, Feeding India had 8500 volunteers, 85 to 90 percent of whom are people between 16 to 30 years.

One of their chief selling points, Kawatra believes, is the short timeline for food donations. “Within 60 to 90 minutes of picking up food, the impact on the quality of human lives can be seen. Food donations help us to tap into the sense of altruism, and provides an almost immediate sense of gratification people for people making donations.” Noting that “food is a ticking time-bomb”, the Feeding India Founder works with partners to fine-tune logistical and quality issues.

The NGO is supported by a growing number of food sector companies, as well as other corporate sector businesses. The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust has also awarded Feeding India a grant and Kawatra’s team have received management and decision-making training from major investment organisations. 

Feeding India is growing rapidly; their medium-term goal is to facilitate 100 million meals to food insecure men, women and children by 2020. Sawara believes firmly in the transformational quality inherent in food. A meal is never ‘just’ a meal, for him and the team at Feeding India, it offers a chance for people ravaged by poverty to become upwardly mobile and enhance their lives and circumstances. “825 million people are needlessly suffering, not because of anything rare, but because they lack something others throw away daily. Without food, there are no human rights, no gender equality.”

When asked recently about what fuels his commitment to feeding the food insecure in India, Kawatra responded, ”my continuous, persistent dream is to see hunger ended in my lifetime.”