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Photo: K.M.Chaudary/AP Photo

Pakistan’s hunger crisis is ballooning, but a group of teenagers is trying to address the problem with an urban ‘refooding’ campaign

LAHORE, Pakistan — Sprawled on the grass in front of Jinnah Hospital on a Sunday afternoon, 17-year-old Shaheena Shaukat took her spoon and scooped biryani into her mouth from a plastic bag. She had traveled from the southern district of Okara with her family to reach a hospital that might treat her grandfather, who was suffering from heart problems. The family, a group of farmers from southern Punjab, could afford neither the city’s hotels nor its restaurants, and spent their idle time at the overcrowded hospital, awaiting nightfall. Occasionally, hunger and thirst pricked at them, and they settled for slaking their thirst with water from plastic bottles.

A group calling itself the Robin Hood Army (RHA) noticed the throng of hungry Pakistanis packed outside the city hospital each day. By mid-day, volunteers from the organization formed two lines, separated by gender, to distribute plastic bags of biryani, Pakistan’s national dish of spices, rice, and meat. A crowd swarmed, and within two hours the food was gone.

Hunger is a growing problem in Pakistan’s second-largest city of 11 million people, going hand in hand with increasing food waste. Today, approximately 40 percent of food in Pakistan is wasted and almost a quarter of Pakistanis are undernourished, despite the fact the country is growing enough food to feed its population. An alarming 60 percent of Pakistanis go hungry each day, and the South Asian country’s hunger is projected to skyrocket in the coming years, reaching “moderate” to “alarming” levels by the year 2030 — the same year the United Nations has set the goal of eradicating global hunger. While other developing countries have reduced hunger by almost 30 percent since 2000, Pakistan’s hunger crisis is deepening.

On the heels of this realization, the RHA mobilized a team of youth volunteers around the country to deliver food to the most destitute. Started in India in 2014, today the Robin Hood Army is a global food recycling campaign operating in more than 40 cities, including several in Pakistan. Teaming up with high-end restaurants in large cities, they shepherd surplus food destined for landfills directly to needy mouths. From citizens scattered in informal settlements to schools and orphanages with limited resources and hospitals treating low-income families, the hope is to generate social uplift through targeted food redistribution.

On a dusty October day, the Robin Hood Army served food to at least 300 Pakistanis at Jinnah Hospital, and on a typical day, they will feed 500 mouths, according to coordinator Zahra Ahmad. At hospitals, the primary goal is to serve families attending to loved ones. Many remain on the lowest rungs of Lahore’s economic ladder and contend with rising food costs and poor nutrition. Healthy, nutritious food is unaffordable for two-thirds of homes in Pakistan, particularly in rural areas. The lack of a balanced diet has severe consequences for mothers and their newborns. Pakistan’s child malnutrition and stunting crisis is already among the worst in the world: the number of children suffering malnutrition hovers around 40 percent, and 30 percent of all infants are considered underweight. This exerts long-term effects on children’s education and health prospects, crippling their opportunities long before they ever set foot in a classroom.

“The food they do have access to is not usually well-looked after or featuring high hygienic standards or high nutritional value,” says Sannen Saleh, a student volunteer with the RHA, who distributed food that day. When the hungry are toiling for a meager paycheck, priorities shift. Calorie intake emphasizes quantity over quality, and nutrition almost always suffers.

Although the problem is nationwide, Lahore’s famous food culture amplifies it. “[G]enerally, Lahoris eat extravagantly and the quantity of the food they eat is regarded as excessive.” He says citizens give low priority to the food they’re wasting. “Food is seen as something to spend on; it’s used to show your social class.”

Shaukat understands this intimately. From a family of farmhands tilling the land, her primary proteins are beans, lentils, and yogurt. “At home, we eat roti (unleavened bread). We don’t eat that much meat, just whatever we can afford,” she says. Chicken is an occasional luxury, extended to guests if there is a religious festivity or birth.  

In Lahore, there are hundreds of rotating RHA volunteers, who adopt a range of strategies to address malnutrition and reduce food waste: ordering smaller portions at restaurants, keeping leftovers, and giving domestic servants more food. The simple methods, if implemented on a large scale, could significantly impact food waste and hunger in Pakistan’s largest cities.

Robin Hood Army volunteers distribute bags of biryani to those in need. Courtesy of Robin Hood Army

Many high-end restaurants are eager to sign on to the Robin Hood Army’s project because the alternative is discarding copious quantities of food each night. Burgers and biryani are some of the mainstays taken from fast food restaurants and “refooded” for the underprivileged.  “Considering that this food would’ve been thrown away, this is the best way to utilize it,” says Saleh. Restaurants arrange pick-up times with the group, and the Robin Hood Army then distributes the goods to individuals during food drives.

However, the demand for food often dwarfs supply. Hafsa Ahsan, a student attending Lahore Grammar School, says the RHA recently visited katchi abadis (informal settlements) and ran out of food faster than anticipated.

“People are literally pushing each other and struggling for the food you’ve left over,” Saleh says. “You understand how ungrateful you’ve been your whole life – and that’s a new experience, particularly since a lot of our volunteers are usually from the privileged classes that waste food. It changes their perspectives.”

“Right now all of us should start from our homes and check how we do things there,” says RHA volunteer Saleha Munsoor. Certainly, the initiative has impelled volunteers to modify their own habits. “If the food is left over in the restaurants, sometimes I bring it home and give it to the maids or the drivers that work at our home,” says 18-year-old student Abdul Ghani, a Robin Hood Army volunteer. Most Lahoris do not consider their housekeepers when they dine out – some even bring servants to restaurants, but ask them to stand aside while the family enjoys the meal. Ghani believes the onus is on upper and middle-class Pakistanis to ensure their food consumption is not at the expense of the less fortunate.

“Once you realize that the food you put on your table every day is something others’ have to struggle for in your own city, it makes you a lot more mindful of what you’re eating and how much you’re eating,” adds Saleh. “I eat less often in a restaurant now.”

“Pakistanis are not mindful of food they waste and how much they throw out,” adds  Munsoor. “Not at all. Seeing the way restaurants waste their food is heartbreaking. I don’t think restaurants will do something about that on their own.”  

Pakistani men wait in a line for food distributed by the Robin Hood Army. Courtesy of the Robin Hood Army

The Islamic month of Ramadan is also an exercise in conspicuous consumption for upper-class families; Lahore’s high-end restaurants often feature elaborate, multi-course buffet meals that are rarely, if ever, fully consumed. Reducing this food waste requires instilling a new discipline, which the RHA tries to cultivate through their youth volunteer network. When they return home, many teenagers try to sensitize family members, coaxing them to order less and bring home leftovers.

“There are not that many people willing to take a step to actually change something about our society,” says Munsoor. Still, Pakistan’s population of more than 200 million is startlingly young  – almost 60 million Pakistanis are below 15 years – and given social media and education, youth perhaps have the greatest capacity to combat food waste and insecurity. Groups like the RHA have sprung up to redress a problem that is widely known but often ignored.

Despite its success, the Robin Hood Army cannot reach every hungry Pakistani. Each year, approximately a third of food produced globally is never consumed, creating 1.3 billion tons of food waste annually, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. This exacts a heavy cost in developing countries, home to the globe’s 870 million hungriest citizens. In places like Pakistan, the lack of nutritious options only strains the gap between the well-off and long-neglected.  

“We cannot afford to eat meat every day,” Shaukat says while sitting next to other families who travel long distances on bumpy roads just to reach the city hospitals. “We ate all the food today,” she says, appreciating the Robin Hood Army’s biryani. “It was delicious.”