"In this pandemic, one can’t point fingers and say so-and-so country is doing better than the other. It really is about taking care of the problems now,” says Spanish-American chef José Andrés. He and his wife, Patricia, started the World Central Kitchen (WCK) in 2010 to provide food aid whenever disaster struck any part of the world. It could be an earthquake in Haiti, bombing in Beirut or a global pandemic.
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This year, the WCK joined forces with the Taj group and chef Sanjeev Kapoor to take fresh cooked meals, free of cost, to hospitals under the campaign #MealsToSmiles. It was first launched by Indian Hotels Company Ltd (IHCL) and Kapoor in May 2020 to feed front-line workers and migrant labourers. They rolled back their efforts as things settled. This year, they resumed operations on 2 May and have served over 650,000 meals to 35 hospitals in nine cities in India.
The genesis of the partnership, between Kapoor and IHCL can be traced to the time when Kapoor was watching lockdown news on TV. This is when he first learnt of Mumbai’s Kasturba Gandhi hospital, which specialises in infectious diseases. “I had never heard of this hospital until then. Everything was shut and I wondered how to help them.” So he made a few calls.
The first was to the Indian Council of Medical Research, which connected him to that hospital’s dean. The second call was to Puneet Chhatwal, managing director and chief executive officer of IHCL. The chef leaned towards partnering with a company that catered food for flights because it wouldn’t be operational and its kitchens would be lying idle.
That’s when TajSATS brought in its expertise. “We were clear from the beginning about supporting government or government-supported hospitals which perhaps lack the resources to take care of overstressed doctors given the overwhelming number of covid-19 patients. Once these hospitals are identified, we find their requirement and the duration of food aid needed. We have the supply logistics in place due to TajSATS. When we have all the information, the food aspect takes about 24-48 hours to be implemented,” explains Manish Gupta, CEO, TajSATS.
This framework was replicated in Goa and cities such as Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai and Varanasi. IHCL also reached out to Taj hotels’ sister concern, Ginger Hotels. The menu they offer feels like nourishing comfort food: palak paneer for Mumbai, kadala gassi for Bengaluru and vegetable biryani with mirchi ka salan for Hyderabad.
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When the second wave hit, triggering an unimaginable crisis, they kick-started the initiative again and sought to make a larger impact. Kapoor dialled Andrés. Headquartered in Washington, DC, WCK’s team had fed millions of healthcare workers in the US. They seemed to have a model that could be airlifted to India to feed large numbers of overstressed healthcare workers.
How do they do it? Their mantra is speed. The WCK team ties up with local chefs and restaurants to ensure the food they provide is infused with a sense of familiarity. In India, they are one of those donating funds for IHCL’s #MealsToSmiles initiative. Other donors include Tata Trusts.
Kapoor believes they were able to move quickly because their intent was crystal clear. Rescue plans require a sense of urgency. Those in the food business have experience in fulfilling immediate needs. “Food is all about here and now. It’s the basic training for people in the culinary space. In the pandemic, it was also our intent, which made things happen at lightning speed.”
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