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Byline: Sheharyar Rizwan

ON a hot sunny Sunday, around 20 young volunteers head off to a slum in Johar Town's G-1 block to distribute food among the dwellers. Once there, the team undertakes the difficult task of making a horde of children of all ages and sizes, some women and a handful of men queue up separately.

There's a system to this food distribution: each person is marked on their thumb with a permanent ink before being handed over a packet of food to ensure there are no repeats in order to feed maximum people.

The volunteers then move on to another slum in Lahore's Johar Town. That Sunday, around 500 needy people were fed in the two slums. These volunteers represent the Robin Hood Army that aims at fighting hunger by collecting excess food and feeding those in need.

In Pakistan, 40 per cent food is wasted instead of being consumed by people, according to a 2017 report of UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), while the Global Hunger Index's 2017 report ranks Pakistan at 106 out of 119 countries and puts its status as 'serious'.

The RHA, which first sprang up in Delhi in August 2014 and expanded to over 70 cities across the world, is modelled on Portugal's Re-Food Programme that relies solely on distribution of excess food.

'We have a team for scouting slums to find out the number of needy residents after which we calculate how much food we'd need, and then approach restaurants accordingly. If at times restaurants are not willing or don't have enough food left to donate, we get fresh food cooked, prepare boxes and distribute them,' says a volunteer, a lawyer by profession.

Since the Lahore chapter's establishment in October 2015, the Robins have fed around 15 slums including some that have been fed more than once. 'The distribution happens mostly every two weeks because most volunteers are professionals. The problem is getting people to be consistent as well as more restaurants volunteering to give us their excess food. There's a huge bar to collecting food when most restaurants close late at night. We can't pick up food daily at night, store it in our freezers and distribute the next day,' explains Mehak Adil, who started the RHA Lahore a few months after its first chapter had been set up in Karachi.

The RHA team says only a few restaurants give them the excess food when needed, but they want more eateries to commit to donate. Mehak says it is difficult to get them on board. 'We even reached out to a popular department store to give us eatables that are soon to expire, but that could not go on for long. We would like such large chains of department stores to collaborate with us,' she adds.

Another volunteer, Walia, says they distribute food not only in slums but also in government hospitals where crowds are more calm and easy to deal with.

Working on the same cause of eradicating hunger and food wastage is Rizq a start-up co-founded by three varsity friends in 2015. 'The idea stemmed from my home where we have been organising a dastarkhwan every day for 35 years for anyone and everyone who wants food,' explains Huzaifa Ahmed, one of the brains behind Rizq. 'Initially, we used to pick up food and distributed it for free for around eight months. Then we got incubated at a social centre at our university where we received mentorship. We were told that we need to create a business model to run an organisation that saves food and feeds people.'

Rizq gets excess food from households, restaurants, multinational firms and caterers, packages it and sells it at a token price to the labour class. With a rickshaw and a helpline, Rizq initially got in contact with households for collection of excess food. 'We started food distribution for free, but realised it wasn't sustainable,' Ahmed says. That is when Rizq developed a model to sell the excess food at a nominal price and established a 'food bank' near Cavalry Grounds bridge in Sultan Park area housing around 100,000 people. 'We verified households and issued them cards through which the residents get food from us at a rate of Rs10 per packet. The bank also gives grocery or the food to the extremely poor families who have no source of income,' Ahmed explains.

However, he adds, 'One household can get food once a day only. We're a social business. We provide 7,000 to 8,000 meals a month due to our limited resources, but we are expanding the supply chain.'

The least the booming food industry can do is avoid wasting food by donating the leftovers to RHA, Rizq or any other charity that feeds the poor through excess food so that the less privileged may not end up sleeping on an empty stomach.
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Publication:Dawn (Karachi, Pakistan)
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Aug 28, 2018
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