"It was my usual round of taking food packets to a nearby area. As I passed by, I watched a woman cooking over a stove outside her home. She was weeping while she stirred the pot. As soon as she saw the car pass by, she ran behind asking for food. She wept & she told me she had no food to feed her children. When I asked her what was she cooking, the answer shocked me. She said, "I'm stirring an empty pot so that my children think I'm going to feed them in a while," Neeti Goel tells me in a phone conversation after a long day.
This heart-wrenching encounter along with so many others will always stay in her mind forever. She's known for her restaurants like Keiba, Madras Diaries & Ostaad in Mumbai. Being a restaurant owner, she saw this as an opportunity to help people in need. She joined hands with 'KhanaChahiye', an initiative by Shishir Joshi, Ruben Mascarenhas, Patik Muni and Pranav Rungta.
This initiative started with providing 1200 meals a day & went up to 15,000-18,000 meals a day from her own restaurant, Madras Diaries. In the course of putting together food ration kits, she has been supported by FMCG giants like Marico, HUL, Paytm, Parle G and many more. But, the demand was only getting higher. "We had to start outsourcing food at a minimal cost of Rs. 20 due to the larger demand and that helped us scale up to 70,000 meals a day."
Being a business owner in these times
While I ask her what is it like for restaurants in these times, she sighs, "I'm more worried about people who don't have food to eat and don't have a roof over their heads right now. And, if I can be of help at this time, I'll do everything in my capacity." With no personal time for family, she unflinchingly says, "Family always comes around & they're proud of my tireless efforts to provide food for the needy."
"Of course, the rents for the restaurants are piling up but all I can do is ask the tenants to be patient with me," she realistically states. It is difficult to sustain right now but I've been receiving help from a lot of volunteers.
It's not just the restaurant business that's suffering or only the migrant workers who're hit by this pandemic. Some well-to-do families that have senior citizens living all by themselves are affected too. The lack of physical ability to cook & clean has made them dependent. "An old-couple would walk up to our restaurant, Madras Diaries in Bandra, every day to collect food. One day, they missed out on it & revealed that they'd have to go hungry without any food at home. Of course, we provided them with food but it was so sad to hear that."
In the meanwhile, with the support from her family's transport business, Lala Bhagwandas Trust, she also started transporting & providing 1200 meals a day since 4th of April for the firemen, who're constantly on duty.
Food for thought
"When we make food packets, we keep in mind that real people are going to eat it. Therefore we make sure there's a menu chalked out with protein-rich food that is also nutritious; bananas are a constant, a sweet dish & soya chunks, some dry sabzi & gravies are a part of a wholesome meal," says Neeti. The Maharashtra government sought our help to complete their basic staple ration kits. She has officially partnered with the government for providing supplements like oil, a few spices & sweeteners & sanitary napkins in the food kit to make it a complete package for a family of 4.
Apart from providing food for migrants, her initiative has adopted 300 stray cats & dogs, providing them with food & necessary supplies.
Need for Lockdown Phase 5: Providing logistical support
Her main aim currently is to manage transportation for migrant workers from Mumbai. Her 'Ghar Bhejo' initiative with childhood friend & actor, Sonu Sood has seen the light of day, by sending migrant workers to their hometowns in buses. In her interview with Mumbai Mirror Goel says, "It’s a logistical nightmare. Every passenger needs to be tested & cleared from their state governments."
Earlier the process was way too tedious which almost took a fortnight to clear the verifications but now that the system is in place, it takes about 48 hours, making it quicker, she explains.“When we hear of vacancies on the trains, we try to fit some of our people in them, based on their route," says Goel.
"After hearing about the drastic conditions in which the migrant workers were being sent back home, we made sure that enough provisions are made on the buses, she says. A hot meal is provided to the passengers with basic necessities like water, fruits, biscuits etc," she says.
Currently, they've also adopted terminuses like CSMT, Kurla and Bandra to provide free food/water, snacks to all the igrants travelling back home in trains from those stations.
Strength in difficult times
"Everything is being managed. It's all being coordinated. It's God's will that when you push yourself to do something you believe in, the universe brings it all together," she humbly says. The biggest reason for doing this is to pave a path for NGO's to help further. "I've dissolved myself in this cause so much so that I don't have the time to think about anything else."
We say, great job, Neeti! You've been a torchbearer in these difficult times. May your positivity spread in leaps & bounds, making situations better for the people who aren't that fortunate.
Think of her as a delicacy. She could be a red sauce penne pasta or refreshing strawberry smoothie. A little sweet, quite tangy and unapologetic on the palate. Her soul is that of a gastronome, mind of an illustrator and heart of a writer. She uses these ingredients to plate up tasty stories about food at India Food Network as an Associate Editor. Be it her blogs, articles, reviews or food shows; she promises a wholesome affair.