The Rajasthan Youth Association Metro's food bank provides a meal a day to over 200 institutions across Chennai. Prince Frederick meets the people behind the 20-year initiative

In its 2010 report, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) states that just seven countries — India, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia — account for 65 per cent of the world's hungry.” The World Food Programme (WPF) has more disheartening news for the country: “about 25 per cent of the world's hungry poor live in India” and “around 43 per cent of Indian children under age five are malnourished.”

These hunger statistics serve to highlight the significance of the food bank run by the Rajasthan Youth Association Metro since 1993. The charity, which collects and distributes food grains (primarily rice and wheat) to the needy, has grown — from 35,000 kilos of food grains collected and distributed in its first year, to over 25,000 kilos every month. It reaches 200-odd institutions in and around Chennai, giving the inmates there a meal-a-day. Not just the quantum of food grains, the focus of the project has also widened.

Widening scope

In its 20th year now, RYA Metro's Foodbank — also known as ‘Chennai Food Bank' (CFB) — plans to extend its programme to the other metros. A unique model created and sustained by the Rajasthan Jain business community in Chennai, it is expected to be replicated by Jain groups in other cities. “In Bangalore, a community-run food bank has begun to function, but on a small scale,” says Anand Surana, co-chairman of the CFB. Having served the cause for over 19 years, the RYA team is familiar with the huge demand and knows the challenge lies in finding groups that will be prepared for hard sacrifices.

The RYA Metro has taken on a variety of schemes, the most challenging being, “Mutti Bhar Anaj” (MBA) which is still the nucleus of the charity. In this scheme, a volunteer knocks on the door of a donor and leaves an empty 5-kg container with him. Every day, the donor is expected to deposit a fistful of rice — or any other food grain of his choice — and at the end of a month, the volunteer arrives to collect the container and leave an empty one behind, thereby restarting the cycle.

“Most people can afford to put aside 5 to 6 kg of rice every month. Its reasonable demand makes MBA extremely popular. People have taken to it partly because most Indian communities believe feeding the poor is the greatest of all charity,” says G.D. Ranka, founder and advisor of the Chennai Food Bank.

During a tour of Australia 20 years ago, Ranka discovered food banks are essential to any society. India needed food banks, but they had to be run differently. “In the West, food banks go to manufacturers and retailers, who are only too keen to dispose of packages that are slightly damaged. In those countries, destruction of unwanted stocks entails a huge cost,” says Ranka. “In India, we had to go to the people.”

Attracting donors

There is a pattern to how RYA Metro team attracts donors. At camps conducted around the city, CFB literature is distributed and residents won over to its cause. Over the years, almost all the prominent localities in Chennai have come under the CFB membership drive. In addition, it has introduced other schemes. Bori Bhar Anaj (BBA), which encourages a donor to give away a bagful of rice or the money for one. Harvest Fellowship Scheme, which invites life memberships with ratings — silver, gold, diamond and platinum. Membership collections go into a corpus fund, interest from helps meet the running costs of the organisation. The fund also comes in handy to meet exigencies caused by calamities, natural or otherwise. “It enables us to take up ad hoc projects,” says Ranka.

From time to time, RYA Metro also organises picnics for underprivileged and special children. To celebrate its 25th anniversary and the CBF's 20th year, it took 1,000 children on a chartered train to Tirupati. “Seventy per cent of these children were travelling by train for the first time,” says Anand. “Our service is attracting more eyes than ever. Finding us through our website (chennaifoodbank.com), a few corporate houses have shown interest in supporting our initiative.”

Ranka and Anand point out that the charity has been sustained by selfless service. “It's a charity run on a day-to-day basis. From collection to distribution, every little job is done under our personal supervision,” says Anand. “Best practices are followed at the CFB.”

The RYA Metro team sifts through the credentials of organisations appealing for support. “An institution is taken on board only after a thorough appraisal,” says Ranka. Centralised distribution is a natural extension of this insistence on quality. All through the month, waves of beneficiaries visit its distribution centre in T.Nagar.

“In 2005, the Chennai Food Bank received ISO9000 certification,” says Ranka. “At that point of time, it was the first food bank in the world to receive such a certification.”