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Winning without waste

Jan 06, 2022

CHENNAI: Where there is a will, there is a way’ may be a cliche but not for Padmanaban Gopalan who set his heart on a mission — to feed India. Coimbatore-based Gopalan started No Food Waste in 2014 and took the cause to 16 districts in Tamil Nadu. His vision gained momentum and manpower with 3,200 volunteers across these locations. The team collects the excess food from weddings, parties, and other places, and distributes it to the needy. Recognizing his effort, he was recently awarded the National Youth Award for 2016-17 by Kiren Rijiju, Union Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs, in New Delhi. In this interview with CE, Gopalan says that he is not ready to rest yet and that he has miles to go before he sleeps. 

Your NGO has been doing phenomenal work in the last few years. This award is a recognition of your intent put into action. Tell us about the journey leading up to this award.
We started in 2014 with small shopping bags for collection of excess food. I joined a few of my friends to collect surplus food in Coimbatore and through crowdfunding, we purchased vessels and a vehicle for collection and distribution. Now, it has turned into a movement and many food stakeholders and governments are supporting us for the cause.
From the time of inception till now, the work has multiplied and so have the number of mouths to be fed. How have you kept up the pace and ensured the mission of the NGO is not forgotten?
From day one of its inception, my team and I were clear about data accuracy. We maintain a record of how much food is collected, at what time it is collected and where it is distributed. We store these records and analyse it monthly. This helps us to know where we are in the process of achieving the mission of no wastage of food. 
In how many cities are you active? And how do you organise the collection and serving of food?
We are active in 10 cities now including Coimbatore, Chennai, Erode, Salem, Tiruchy, Darmapurai, Tiruppur, Tirunelveli, Thanuppu and Tadepalligudem in Andhra Pradesh. We have well-established and structured SOPs for surplus food collection and distribution. We have helpline numbers through which food calls are recorded in Coimbatore. The calls are then diverted to the exact location and the volunteers there approach the donors for food collection and distribute it. To locate the hunger community, we also have the hunger map. With the help of the map, we spot the communities who need food and distribute it to them. We ensure that hygiene is maintained when we collect and distribute. Quality checks are done on the food using food thermometers.
What city tops the list in terms of wastage? 
We can’t tell which city tops the list in wastage. Wastage varies between types of cities such as Tier 1, 2 and 3. It is mostly based on the density of population and events in each city.
What was your reaction when you heard about the award?
I felt immense happiness and proud to receive the award representing No Food Waste. I want to dedicate this award to all my team members and to youngsters who are working tirelessly for reducing food waste and hunger across the country. 

Did you have to apply for it? If yes, what was the procedure?
Yes, youngsters working towards national and community development can apply through portal at the National Youth Award forum. Selections are purely based on the performance and impact created by the individuals in the respective sectors. I had applied in 2016 for the award. 

The award now brings with it a lot more responsibility. What are your plans to take this work forward? Do you plan to diversify into another social cause?
As a team, we feel very responsible after receiving the award. To take this work forward, we will focus on process-oriented food recovery with the help of technological advancement. Our next plan to reduce food waste is ‘technology for social good’. With this, we will track data and monitor the amount of food wasted and try to develop solutions to reduce the wastage of food. We have other social ventures like edudarma — crowdfunding to support education, Toilet First — constructing toilets in slum areas with government subsidies. We have no plan to diversify into another cause.

What have been your lessons on the journey so far? 
I have learned to listen to society. Observing the community, community participation, social capital for cumulative growth and collective work methodology are a few things that made the movement successful. If we step forward towards our goal, society will lead you to the next step, which is real to me.

How has the response been across cities?
Earlier, it was difficult to convince people to be a food donor. Now, there is enough awareness among people and they involve themselves in food distribution. People are more aware of the food wastage and the injustice, and readily donate surplus food. Many a time, they volunteer to help us.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in No Food Waste?
The biggest challenge is gathering volunteers for a common cause. Initially, it was difficult to lead the movement in other cities. With the help of technology, it has become easy to gather them, understand the vision and align them to the cause.


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