Anna Asava is one of the co-founders of Hunger Mitao.

Anna Asava is one of the co-founders of Hunger Mitao.

Photo provided by Don Tanner


Former Troy residents team with Gleaners to fight hunger

By: Brendan Losinski | Troy Times | Published October 14, 2021

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TROY — Two former Troy residents are returning to Michigan to team up with Gleaners Community Food Bank to help combat food insecurity.

Anna and Raj Asava moved to the Detroit area from India in 1974 and both began careers working in various roles in corporate America. Since then, they have found success, and upon their respective retirements in 2009 and 2010, they began trying to give back to those in need.

“We wanted to spend more time with our aging family members, we wanted to travel, and we wanted to give back to the community,” said Raj. “We were focused on lots of causes. … About five years ago, I was having lunch with the mayor here in Plano, Texas, and he asked us to sponsor a program to provide food for schools, including schools where our own children went.”

Once they started looking at the issue of food insecurity, both said they were shocked that an affluent community such as theirs had such a prevalent problem with hunger.

“We talked with members of the Indian Physicians Association and a local food bank. There were 850,000 people in north Texas alone who were in need,” said Anna. “Plano was one of the wealthiest cities in Texas, and there were still these problems. The food bank woman took out a backpack full of food that kids could eat; nothing that needed to be cooked or be prepared.”

“One in four school children are hungry. Some don’t have a full meal when they leave school on Friday until they return to school on Monday,” Raj added. He said that “40% of people in America are only $400 from a crisis. If they have an accident or an unintended expense of more than $400, they would be in trouble.”

The pair began to take action, but Raj said they soon realized that spreading information could be as important as spreading food supplies.

“Once we were convinced the food bank system worked, we decided to help,” he said. “We wrote a $100,000 check, but we then had an epiphany. It took us 30 years to realize how big this problem is. People may not be aware of how (hunger) is all around us. … So we wanted to give three years of our time to raise awareness of the food bank and the need.”

So the pair launched a new organization called Hunger Mitao to both combat food insecurity and raise awareness of the problem, focusing specifically on getting the Indian American community involved.

“So, on Sept. 29 in 2017, we launched Hunger Mitao,” Raj continued. “We started speaking with the community about the hunger issue, and it took us only seven months to get our first million meals. We raised our next million in four months. We have now launched Hunger Mitao in Houston, North Texas, and the Tarrant area in Texas, Atlanta, New York, and Seattle. So far we have raised 40 million meals.”

Their seventh area of focus is now the Detroit area, realized through a partnership with Gleaners.

“They have been working over the past four years with Feeding America, which is our umbrella organization,” said Ceil Aitchison, the vice president for development at Gleaners, as well as “a number of foodbanks in urban areas like New York and Atlanta, and they bring their volunteer organization and activate the Indian American community there to increase understanding and awareness of food insecurity and encourage them to collect food and support these causes with philanthropy.”

The partnership will formally begin with a virtual food drive event on Tuesday, Oct. 18, on Zoom.

“We started talking to them about eight months ago,” explained Aitchison. “We put together a virtual food drive, and they sent it out to some of their contacts. Oct. 19 is the official launch of the partnership. We are coming out of COVID ... so now is the point where we are officially launching in Michigan and, hopefully, reach out to the community to build some momentum here.”

People can RSVP for the launch event or contribute to it by going to Gleaners’ website, www.gcfb.org/hungermitao. Additional information is available at www.hungermitao.org.

“We learned about Feeding America and its 200 food banks across the country. It’s a very efficient system, and most ZIP codes are covered by the food banks,” said Anna. “Almost 24 million people in the country last year are food challenged. We never saw hunger living in the suburbs. The face of hunger in India was very different. We always associated hunger with homelessness, but 94% of people receiving aid in America have a permanent address. They might have just been affected by a layoff or health problem or are just underemployed.”

Both the Asavas and Aitchison said the need is very real and that it touches virtually every community in the United States.

“We know that more than 150,000 children and adults don’t have enough access to enough nutritious food, and they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. From Feeding America, their stats say 1 in 6 people may be facing food insecurity, and those numbers are 1 in 5 in southeast Michigan,” Aitchison said. “People being on fixed incomes means food insecurity is a common result. If there’s an illness in the family and someone can’t work or medical bills add up, the same thing happens. If people lose power and food goes bad after a storm or blackout, even that can harm a family on fixed incomes.”

The Asavas chose to focus on the Indian community, since they already had contacts there and were most familiar with it. They are now looking to spread their model of engaging the community and spreading awareness to other communities as well.

“We chose to engage the Indian American community because we had the highest influence because our network in the Indian American community was so large. We knew that if this could work with the Indian American community, we could expand it outward to other communities in the country. When we do raise awareness, the biggest flaw is that you don’t know how to engage people. We identified three ways people can be engaged: volunteering, conducting more food drives and fundraising,” Raj said. “Now that this model is proven to work with the Indian community, we have worked with the Chinese community to share our model with them. It’s called Nihao. If other communities would like to launch a similar movement, we would love to work with them.”

“Our mission is not just to get the Indian community engaged, but also to unify its giving,” added Anna. “If it becomes sporadic, it won’t have as much of an impact. Giving as one voice for one cause can raise awareness far more effectively.”

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