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Mumbai's Legendary Lunchbox Carriers Take Waste Food to the Poor

  • Anjana Pasricha

Mumbai’s Legendary Lunchbox Carriers Take Waste Food to the Poor
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One of the hallmarks of India's financial capital, Mumbai, is a food delivery system that involves 5,000 lunchbox carriers, who distribute over 100,000 home cooked meals to office workers with an efficiency that has been the subject of top business school studies. These men are now using their food distribution skills to deliver leftover food to the hungry.

Called the "Roti" or "Food" Bank, this mini-van stands at a mid-point in Mumbai ready to move whenever a call comes from people hosting marriage parties, to rich households or restaurants. The mission of the "Roti Bank," founded by the city's well-known lunch box carriers or "dabbawallahs" is to pick up leftover food and distribute it to the poor in slums and on the streets.

Subhash Talekar launched the "Roti Bank" after witnessing two dramatically different scenarios as he and his colleagues lugged lunch boxes from homes to offices across the city.

"We saw that rich people throw away their left over food. And we saw the contrasting picture where people slept hungry on footpaths, bridges, outside rail stations," he said.

The appeal by Mumbai's "dabbawallahs" to give them food that would have been thrown away has quickly won traction, partly due to their impeccable reputation for distributing food efficiently.

Jayawanti Thakkar, a resident of a luxury high rise, called them on her birthday after reading about their project in a newspaper.

"It is not easy to trust all organizations. When I came to know that they give the food themselves, then I became confident. This work must be carried forward," she said.

She and her friends have vowed not to allow any food to go waste.

The work has gathered momentum since December after a former police commissioner donated this mini-van because picking up large quantities of food on a cycle was a challenge. Talekar said in a city where a party is always on, they get over 20 calls daily.

"On a day we give food to 400-500 people and on weekends it goes up to a 1000. Having this van has made the numbers grow substantially," he said.

The Food Bank has 200 volunteers.

Although Mumbai's Food Bank distributes only a fraction of the millions of tons of food that is thrown away in the world, the initiative is a step toward bridging the gap between waste and hunger.

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