Rintu Rathod’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing all day. She has taken over 300 calls, and has missed… she has no idea how many. Everyone calling wants to know how to donate food to flood victims in Kerala.

The story starts in 2014. Moved by the plight of flood victims in Kashmir, she wondered what she could do. She knew disaster relief supplies tended to be dry goods. “How long can someone eat dry stuff?” she asks. “I’m Gujarati, so I thought of making theplas.” She shared the idea with friends, and her message went viral. She wound up with 35,000 donated theplas.

Ms. Rathod coordinated with a friend’s NGO in Kashmir to receive the food. When her husband, who volunteered to arrange transport, went to Jet Airways, he got a pleasant surprise: “They did not charge a rupee!”

She decided to start a group that would do similar work whenever there was any national calamity; she called it the Food Army. It now has more than a thousand members, and has sent theplas to Nepal (over a lakh), Chennai, after the 2015 floods (30,000), and Gujarat (85,000). Jet has continued to support them with free freight, and IndiGo has also carried goods for them.

Cuisine change

Now, the group is rallying to send food to Kerala. This time it won’t be theplas, though. A friend who works with an NGO said that people in Kerala might not like the Gujarati preparation. Ms. Rathod racked her brains for something that would appeal to South Indian taste-buds, and came up with dry-roasted upma. “It can last for a month without a problem; we take it when we travel abroad. All you need to do is add water and heat.”

On Saturday morning, she put the message out on the group’s Facebook page, adding a few other dry food items that the public could donate, and a list of members’ homes which are acting as collection centres. Since then, their phones have been ringing constantly too.

The team is expecting so many contributions that Ms. Rathod knows the usual informal collection won’t do: she is hiring a truck to pick up the donated goods from various parts of the city. The food will be flown to Bangalore, picked up by an NGO called Youth4Seva, whose members will then take it to Kerala by road, and distribute it there. They will also prepare and serve the food wherever possible.

For Ms. Rathod, this has meant putting aside her business for the moment. A graduate of the Baroda School of Art, she calls herself an artist-turned-baker, a sculptor of cake and chocolate. In 2011, she came up with the idea of Ganesh idols made of chocolate. The idols are immersed in milk, she explains, and the resultant chocolate milk is given to underprivileged kids. “We worship, we cause no harm to the environment, and the kids are happy.” She has been getting orders since last year, and interest is peaking now, with Ganesh Chaturthi around the corner, so the phone that she reserves for the baking business is ringing all the time too. But she isn’t taking very many of those calls.

“That is okay,” she says. The dedicated Food Army phone is ringing again. “Kerala is more important.”

The Food Army is accepting: Dry-roasted upma (1kg or ½kg packs in zip lock bags); rice: (1kg packs), tuvar dal (1kg packs); milk powder (½kg packs), sugar (1kg packs). Collection only on 19 and 20 August. For a list of collection centres in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, email myfoodarmy@gmail.com or see
https://bit.ly/2vW2xC2

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