Mahita and Puja have come together to encourage organic consumption and feed the hungry.

Planting love How two Bengaluru women are feeding the poor healthy foodMahita (L) and Puja (R)
news Social work Thursday, December 01, 2016 - 17:26

Bengaluru-based Mahita Fernandez woke up around 3 am one night, with her stomach growling with hunger. Feeling too lazy to get up and fix herself a bite, Mahita was suddenly struck by a realisation: there are hundreds out there without a roof over their head and for whom a hungry, sleepless night is a daily affair.

This is how the idea for Feed Your Neighbour took root in Mahita’s mind around Dasara last year. The non-profit charitable trust was registered in June this year, after a few successful community feeding drives around festivals when people were encouraged to cook a few extra meals to give to the poor, needy and homeless. 

Now, Feed Your Neighbour has collaborated with Puja Gurung who runs the Honey Bees Nature Club and started "Harvesting Love" to encourage organic consumption as well as combat hunger.

Here, volunteers and community members are given a set of three pots with three types of seeds - methi, coriander and spinach – for Rs 200 in total. The buyers will receive regular emails from Puja about how to care for the plants. 

Mahita and Puja then collect the harvest from these plants, mix it with approximately a kilo of rice and distribute the meals. One harvest mixed with the said quantity of rice can feed close to four adults, Mahita estimates. 

So far, about 200 sets have been bought. Each plant can give 3-5 harvests and will require a longer engagement period, enabling the duo to build a more involved and sustainable community to achieve their goals.

The plants have been chosen strategically because if they all harvest at a different time, collecting the produce would turn out to be a major hassle. Mahita explains that all the plants harvest at three-week intervals: methi at 4 weeks, coriander at 7, and spinach at 10. “We distributed the first installment of pots on November 19 and 20. Now, when we go to collect the methi produce, we will deliver the second set of pots,” Mahita explains.    

And while now more people are talking about the project and want to become a part of it, Feed Your Neighbour began with a simple Facebook post after Mahita’s sleepless night. She invited people to cook five extra meals a day in the ten days leading up to Dasara, which she would pick up and then distribute to the homeless and needy. The goal was to feed one lakh people.

Screenshot of Mahita's orignial post

The post went viral and was shared by hundreds of people, Mahita recalls: Bengalureans settled abroad, restaurants and even a few people who were traveling but wanted to contribute. “Since they couldn’t cook meals, they offered to send supplies and asked if I could make and distribute meals on their behalf,” Mahita narrates.

This meant that her original plan of collecting meals didn’t work out. In fact, she had to hire a wedding caterer and set up a kitchen in her house in Langford Town to cook food with all the supplies that people had sent her. While they distributed 600 meals the first day, the numbers doubled and tripled in the coming days. On the final day alone, the number was over 19,000. 

While Mahita’s idea worked well around festivals, she wanted to make it more sustainable. Another problem was the logistical constraints she faced in terms of picking up and delivering food across the city because there was no one else involved full-time.

So, after brainstorming over it for a few months, Mahita came up with another model: she began approaching supermarkets and retail stores with their own brands of groceries. “All of these have expiry dates and when they don’t get sold, the food simply goes into the landfills. I rescue this food about two weeks before the expiry date,” Mahita says. 

20% of the 8 tonnes she receives on average each fortnight, is repackaged and given as supplies to the poor who have the means to cook. But 80% of it goes to institutions like orphanages, old age homes, homes for the destitute as fortnightly rations, all free of cost. Distributing cooked meals is something she does occasionally now, around festivals, or when someone approaches her for occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. 

Over time, she has come to learn of the layers of poverty that exist in the city. “There are those who are homeless, those who live in slums in mud and brick houses and those who live in tents. There’s no one kind of poor and they all have different needs You cannot give the homeless rations because they cannot cook, so you have to give them cooked meals,” she explains.

Mahita eventually wants to start a nutrition program for the recipients of the ration and food as well. For this purpose, she is trying to get the recipients to fill a form with questions about their age, family, diet, work and so on. “They are very reluctant to give out personal details, so I usually talk about the form after one or two rounds of meals. So far, we have about 2,000 registered recipients,” Mahita says.

It is difficult for Mahita to arrive at an exact number of community members. She says around 4,000 people participate and volunteer regularly. And while she faces logistical issues, she understands she cannot expect everyone to have the same enthusiasm. “There are many egos involved in social work, and many people want to do it for personal glory. My philosophy is to not expect, but continue doing what I do. But I’ve been really lucky to find so many like-minded people,” Mahita says.

She also believes that local efforts like these may encourage people who want to do their bit for the society but without taking too much responsibility. “I think we’ve successfully demonstrated how you can make a difference without deviating too much from your personal schedule,” she adds.