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Food & Hunger

Meet the "robinhoods" of food redistribution in India, the dabbawallas

In India, a movement known as the Roti Bank is working on a solution to ending food waste, and hunger in a way that seems almost too simple. 

Roti Bank brings the “robinhood” idea of taking from the rich and giving to the poor and translates it in terms of food redistribution. From Aurangabad, India, to Mumbai, Roti Bank makes sending leftovers from a home cooked dinner to a person in need of a meal a possibility all inspired by and carried out by the dabbawallas, or food delivery men.  

It’s taking the problem of hunger and putting the solution at everyone’s fingertips. Today, there are so many new and innovative ways to redistribute food. It’s wonderful to hear more and more what venues, stores, and individuals are doing what to combat hunger.

According to one of the co-founders, Dashrath Kedare of the Roti Bank initiative, while there are charities, schools, and soup-kitchens throughout India, there are few ways to bridge the gap between those who don’t know where their next meal is coming from and others who are tossing out leftovers.

The idea and possibility of Roti Bank came from a group of over 4,000 workers in Mumbai known as the dabbawallas – which loosely translates to “lunch box carrier.” The dabbawallas bring lunch from homes around Mumbai to over 200,000 office employees at their places of work. They are incredibly efficient, travelling on foot, bike or bus to deliver lunches in boxes and pushcarts across the city.

One night, one of the dabbawalla union organizers, Talekar (the other co-founder of Roti Bank), was helping on the side to cater a wedding. It’s too hard to calculate the right amount of food for 500 people at a wedding, so at the end of the event mountains of food were leftover. The idea with what to do with all the leftover food came to both Talekar and the event caterer, Rushikesh Kadam who knew the region well.

"We travel these routes every day. We know exactly where the poor people gather," Talekar told NPR’s Goat and Soda: Stories of life in a changing world.

They spent the rest of the night delivering the leftover food to homeless and hungry people. From there, the idea to scale their delivery system grew.

Talekar posted a phone number connecting willing-to-help dabbawallas with Indians, businesses, and event planners to call who had extra food. Soon he was receiving over 300 phone calls then it slowed down to between 20-30 per day – still no easy feat. The dabbawallas are up at 8:30am to start deliveries and work through the afternoon. Anyone who takes on additional shifts to bring leftover food from events to distribute throughout the closest or most in need huts and shanties nearby does so on their own time.

While the dabbawallas make enough to provide for their families (about $180 each month) the model is not totally sustainable and Talekar hopes more will join to help, especially NGOs who can adopt their efficient and effective model.

"We're hoping NGOs across the country will want to tie up with us and take this forward," he said. "We have the network and the know-how, but we can only do so much."

Sounds like they’ve done a lot already! We’d love to see this program grow even more. With all the advancements in technology from UberEats to drone restaurants it would be great to see a tred and true method take off where it’s needed too.

To learn more about Roti Bank check out