Ajay with Maria and Omar Lopez, owners of Candela restaurant in Los Angeles, at a #HashTagLunchbag event. (Photo: Jennifer Johnson)

Profiles in Kindness: Ajay Relan, Co-Founder of #HashtagLunchbag
Lindsay Robertson
By Lindsay Robertson

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In this new feature, we’re shining a spotlight on wonderful humans who are spreading goodness and giving back.

Ajay Relan is an entrepreneur and restaurant owner in Los Angeles who, along with friends, co-founded a movement (now a charity) called #HashtagLunchbag, which encourages friends to get together to make and deliver lunch bag meals with “love notes” to the needy year-round. We spoke with Ajay about how a spontaneous idea became a worldwide movement.

How did #HashtagLunchbag get started?

#HashtagLunchbag began on Christmas Day 2012 in Los Angeles. Some friends and I were looking for an opportunity to volunteer, but we procrastinated, and every spot we could find was taken. So we just decided to go to the local grocery store and buy enough food to feed 100 people, an arbitrary number. We decided to make the kind of meals that our moms made for us in middle school, things that we would actually like to eat.

And you turned it into a party?

Yeah, we were playing music, dancing, putting the bags together. Then we decided to add little encouraging notes to put inside the bags. We went down to Santa Monica and Venice Beach and passed them out. And it grew quickly from there.

What's a typical #HashtagLunchbag event like?

We describe it as “a pop-up party with a purpose.” It has all the elements that people like about socializing, but centered around a very specific act. [Hosts] request a $10 donation to help cover the cost of the groceries, and then any surplus usually goes towards growing or doing more meals. At this point, it’s not just people having parties in their homes, it’s also companies that use the events as ways to get their employees together and give back.

And a big part of it is distribution, right?

Yes, after we’ve assembled the bags, written notes, and drawn [a heart with a hashtag in the middle] on them, we go out and  hand-distribute these directly to the people that need them. In LA, we go to an area called Skid Row, which has one of the largest homeless communities in the country.

You're probably bringing in a lot of people who have never volunteered before.

We realized that when we were starting to formulate a mission: we didn’t really think that we were ending or even putting a dent in hunger and homeless issues. We were just bringing awareness, but more so giving  people who probably otherwise wouldn’t be engaged in any type of volunteer work the opportunity, and let that serve as a catalyst for them to do more in their everyday life. I call it a “gateway to giving.”

It seems like #HashtagLunchbag probably helps the givers a lot, too.

It’s almost equal, right? Because we live in a world where for the first time in history, we’re all connected. Whether you have 10 friends or followers or ten million, you have the ability to inspire one person. Our main mantra is we want to take what we’re doing and turn it “from a ripple to a wave.” So every little bit of what we do counts toward something larger, and it gives people the ability to make an impact in their local community, knowing that that contributes to something that people are doing all over the world.

Learn more about #HashtagLunchbag and find out how you can join or start a group in your community.

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