Leftover Lunch? Share My Dabba in Mumbai

Leftover Lunch? Share My Dabba in Mumbai

Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 15:18

The mention of social entrepreneurship makes me think of lunch. It specifically makes me think of Mumbai’s dabbawallas and how many lunches they miraculously deliver every day in this Indian metropolis. It also makes me think about sharing lunch.

The concept is simple – a dabbawalla collects lunch boxes (commonly called a tiffin) from family homes in the morning and then delivers them to workplaces for lunch. He then collects the empty tiffins and returns them to their home later in the afternoon. Despite this simple concept, the system itself seems miraculous and I’m not trying to sound precious here. Using bicycles and the city trains, there are between 4,500 and 5,000 dabbawallas delivering over 200,000 lunch boxes a day with great precision. They have been famously studied by Harvard and have a six sigma rating. An article in Forbes reports that they make maybe one mistake every two months. This system is over 130 years old, and the New York Times estimates that it continues to grow 5-10% each year. Obviously the fee to have a homemade hot lunch delivered to your workplace is well worth it. Beyond numbers and efficiency, this lunch delivery system was even the premise of a recent movie: The Lunchbox

But what if the lunch box is not empty? What if there are leftovers? Share My Dabba is an initiative to make sure that less food is wasted and that more people eat lunch. The concept is also simple. If you have any leftover food in your dabba, you put a Share sticker on it before the dabbawalla comes to pick it up. Maybe you have more food that you can eat, or indulged in some office snacks and don’t feel like lunch that day? The dabbawalla then sets the tiffin aside and the leftover food is given to street children. Share My Dabba is, therefore, not a charity, but instead a creative approach to making more lunches go around. You can see this concept in action here.

A few years ago I was working in Mumbai. My first week I bought a small tiffin from a neigbhourhood grocery store. Unlike the ones that my co-workers had – four or five stacked on top of each other and secured with a clasp – I had only a single one. I would fill it with slices of apple, simple salads, and dates stuffed with pistachios. I didn’t have a kitchen to make myself a hot lunch. Now working in Munich, after dinner I scoop my leftovers into my tiffin and bring it to work the next day. The clasp has started to loosen, but it is still sturdy and reliable, and has never leaked pasta sauce or salad dressing. When I take my tiffin out of the fridge at work and empty my lunch onto a plate, I think of the dabbawallas and all of the hot lunches they deliver. I always make sure to pack just as much as I can eat and if I start to feel full, I think of Share My Dabba. Food waste in Europe and North America is frighteningly large and I think that all cities should be inspired by this initiative to think more creatively about food distribution in general. 

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