A better food system starts with a vision. In his podcast series Food Lab Talk, Google’s Vice President of Workplace Programs, REWS, Michiel Bakker, interviews inspiring changemakers who are working at the forefront of our most pressing food system challenges. Each month, Food Inspiration highlights one of these visionaries. Food Lab Talk’s first season focuses on reducing loss and waste in the food system, and features Neel Ghose, founder of the Robin Hood Army. 

The Robin Hood Army, founded in 2015 in New Delhi, India, is a zero-funds volunteer-based organization that works to get surplus food from restaurants, supermarkets and communities to serve the less fortunate. Through the power of people – currently there are over 220.000 volunteers, or ‘Robins’ as they are called – the Robin Hood Army has scaled to reach more than 400 cities in 13 countries, currently serving over 1,5 billion meals a month. Robins are largely students and young working professionals who all participate in their free time. The Army’s approach includes homeless families, orphanages, patients from public hospitals and elderly homes.

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The idea was actually inspired by a similar project called ReFood that Neel came across when he worked in Lisbon, Portugal for a few months as a representative of a food tech start-up. The idea is simple. In their free time, volunteers collect surplus foods from restaurants and give it to the less fortunate in a hyper local distribution loop. “I found this solution very intuitive and obvious. I was sure there is a use case for this in countries like mine, India. So I spent some time with the founder of ReFood and the operational teams just to understand their operations, what they do, and how they motivate their volunteers. And then in summer 2015, when I got back to India, I got in touch with a couple of close friends and we decided to try and build something similar.”

No one earns a buck

“One of our key operating principles is that we are a zero-funds company; we don’t take money from anyone. That’s quite an unconventional approach. At first we decided not to do so from a predominantly moral standpoint. In our part of the world, we often experience corruption regarding fundraising, and we just didn't want that. But over time, it grew to become one of our core strengths. Currently, we have over 220.000 volunteers. Some time ago we did a survey, and more than 90% of them say they are involved because we don’t take money.”

“It has also proven to be one of the key levers of growing partnerships. Partnerships can have two outcomes, either more food or more visibility for our work. So we partner with billboard companies, local tv and radio stations, big tech companies like Über and Facebook, or small food tech start-ups. The pitch with every single partnership is the same. We say, look, this is the food waste problem, and this is the number of people who are hungry in your city. We are trying to make a contribution to this. We are not in it for the money; the only reason we are doing it is because we want to make a difference for the community. So I don’t ask a company to sponsor or pay for two or three billboards. I simply ask, why not give me the billboards that you did not sell this quarter, to support our mission and your local community. It is very difficult to say no to that.”

We learn by doing

“I’m a big believer that most of the answers to the system challenges we face come from the ground up. So that’s why it’s so important to get started in the first place. Don’t overthink the five-year-plan. When we launched, we got a lot of positive affirmations in the first few weeks and months. Things happened that we did not anticipate. There were restaurant owners that saw us doing all this work in our free times and they decided they wanted to contribute more. Instead of just providing their surplus food, they said, hey, we also cook meals for our staff, why don’t we cook these meals as well and provide those instead of just the ingredients? So, what we try to do at a very early stage is not just treat our restaurants and partners as donors or sponsors, but as participants. We include them in our mission so that they don’t perceive themselves as ‘helping’ the Robin Hood Army, but they become part of the army. So that is how we succeed in gathering people with such a high level of ownership around us.”

“Don’t overthink the five-year plan”

“In the early stages of our journey, we started to share the stories of our food distributions on social media. Initially, the prime reason to do that was because as we grew, we felt we needed to create legitimacy with the restaurants and partners, to show them, look, this is what's happening with your food. When posting stories, we did not focus on the hardship or problems in the communities, but rather on the happy moments of sharing and connection.”

“The unintended consequence of this was that people in other cities started seeing our posts, thinking this is really cool and asking us to let them know when we would start in their city. Of course, we could have paused, made some solid plans first, waiting for the ideal moment, first trying to make the operations in Delhi absolutely perfect, but we decided to go with the momentum. We took the people that were interested on a zoom call, walked them through the building blocks of our concept and shared our key principles that we had formed along the way. We simply answered the most important questions for them: How do you engage restaurants? How do you identify people to serve? How do you share the responsibilities with the first few team members? How do you leverage social media? And these building blocks actually became our playbook for scaling up. Something that could be communicated and shared. I’m glad we did not wait for it to be perfect, because it allowed us to create more impact fast, by trusting on the strength of our community.”

“What this experience made me realize is two things. One, people all over the world are looking to do good, they are just looking for a playbook to follow and a community to engage in. And secondly, a lot of people have a much better pulse on the ground than I might have, so they are far better capable of making it a local success. They have a much better perspective of what their community needs. So our job is not to tell them exactly what to do. Our job is to share how to operate this model, transfer our company culture and then let them take it further, as long as they respect our three basic principles - not taking money, being apolitical and respectful to all religions. We then let people work their magic, and it’s really cool to see how people innovate. For instance, in Delhi we focus only on surplus from restaurants, but in other cities we see initiatives also approaching supermarkets or targeting event caterers and ‘Indian weddings,’ where typically large amounts of food are wasted.” 

Join the army

The Robin Hood Army is always on the lookout for new partners and volunteers. To get involved:  

  • Volunteer time: All that’s needed is three hours/week at least twice a month to make a real impact. Online applications are welcome. If there is a local team looking to grow, a Robin will reach out

  • Contribute food: If you manage a restaurant or are located generally in one of the countries or cities where the Robin Hood Army is currently active, or you want to contribute regular meals from your family or workplace, you can reach out to connect

  • Teach: Creating access to education is the purest form of nation building. The Robin Hood Army is looking for people and organizations that can help to teach kids in the Robin Hood Academy

It is also possible to apply for a new Robin Hood Army ‘chapter’ in yet unexplored cities or communities. Here is a checklist to see what is needed »