Hunger Mitao!

How Houston's Indian American Community Is Feeding the Hungry

A group known as the Indian American Council has now provided a million meals—and counting—to the Houston Food Bank.

By Nicki Koetting March 25, 2019 Published in the April 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

About 100 people showed up to the group's first volunteer day.

Image: John Heppler

You could say that the Indian American Council at the Houston Food Bank’s first meeting was a success. At the event last October, the goal was to raise enough money, within the next year, to provide 1 million meals for Houston’s food-insecure population. Instead the city’s Indian American community raised that money—more than $300,000—in a single hour. “About 10 people stepped up and committed to 100,000 meals each,” says IAC co-founder Raj Asava. “We are extremely proud of that.”

The new Houston group is an offshoot of the Indian American Council at the North Texas Food Bank, which Raj and his wife, Anna, launched in September 2017. The idea, however, took root five years ago, when Raj was having lunch with a friend, Plano mayor Harry LaRosiliere. LaRosiliere mentioned that he was supporting a backpack program that sends home meals with food-insecure children.

Raj was shocked to learn, over the course of that conversation, that over 41 million people in the U.S. are food-insecure, including more than 12 million children. In Texas, more than 4.2 million people struggle with hunger, and of those, more than 1.6 million are children.

That evening Raj shared these facts with Anna. On the spot, the Asavas—who emigrated to the U.S. four decades ago, and are both retired from the corporate world—decided to join the fight against hunger in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, where they live. Anna joined the NTFB’s philanthropy council, and the couple eventually decided to launch their own initiative, the IAC.

“We have hundreds, maybe even thousands, of contacts in the area of people of Indian origin,” Raj says. “We found that they were just as unaware of the hunger issue as we were five years ago.” The couple was sure that after learning about their mission, others would join them.

The Asavas launched their effort at the North Texas Food Bank through simple, organic awareness campaigns—“from two people at Starbucks to 20,000 people at the Cotton Bowl Stadium,” Raj explains. Adopting the slogan Hunger Mitao! (Wipe Out Hunger!), they pressed the community not only to make one-time donations, but also to commit to multi-year giving, set up boxes for canned goods at parties and festivals, and volunteer one day a month at the North Texas Food Bank.

It worked. Since its inception less than two years ago, the North Texas IAC has raised enough money for 3 million meals. Meanwhile, the Asavas decided to keep going: Houston has the largest food bank in the country, and a larger Indian American population than Dallas. Why not replicate the model here?

When the couple approached Amy Ragan, the chief development officer for the Houston Food Bank, about launching a local IAC, she was surprised—“I’d never heard of something like this,” she says—and immediately wanted to make it a priority.

“Think about the impact, how important it is for people in our community who are struggling to put food on their tables,” Ragan says. “It’s going to get bigger, and that’s great. We’re really excited for this opportunity to engage this community with the food bank.”

The Houston group is well on its way to reach, perhaps even surpass, its 2019 goal of providing 2 million meals to those in need—and will likely do so faster than its Dallas counterpart, we couldn’t help but note. “That friendly rivalry between Dallas and Houston played out well,” Raj laughs. “Houston donors said, ‘No, we’re not going to be behind Dallas.’”

Other IAC outposts are now in the works. One launched at the Food Bank for New York City in March, and the Asavas have been talking to food banks across Texas and in Atlanta and the California Bay Area.

“We landed here with little, and look where we are today,” Raj says. “This country has given us opportunities. It has given us freedom. It’s time for us to give back.”

The IAC’s monthly volunteer days at the Houston Food Bank launched in February. The next one takes place April 27. 

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