How to Make a Lunch Bag That Feeds Body—and Souls—With Ajay Relan

By Robin Rootenberg

When Ajay Relan, William Smith and J.D. McElroy made 100 sandwiches and 100 Christmas cards in his apartment, put them in paper sacks and handed them out to hungry people in Los Angeles six years ago, they thought they might be starting a movement to end world hunger.

“When you feed someone else, you’re feeding yourself,” Relan says. After the first event, the friends realized their mission wasn’t to end hunger. “We were all going through the personal and professional challenges, changes and doubts that everyone does and that cause you to withdraw,” he explains. “We all found that through random acts of kindness and empowering and inspiring others to do them, we were giving people the opportunity to be grateful for what they had and to be present where they were.”

And have fun doing it. Now that sandwich- and love-note-making and distribution events have taken place in 150 cities, the friends know it’s a way to nourish something much bigger.

From 100 sandwiches to a worldwide phenomenon

After the first lunch-bag distribution, Relan and his friends posted pictures of their adventure and tagged the images #HashtagLunchbag to poke fun at the social media phenomenon with a double reference to hashtag, “and also because it rhymed with lunch bag,” Relan says with a laugh.

To their surprise, the images went viral—and friends and followers asked when the next event would take place. In January 2013, they hosted a second event with 10 people who made and distributed 200 lunch bags and then shared their stories.

Relan and his friends decided to make it a monthly social event, and for his birthday, Relan hosted an event with the goal of preparing 1,000 lunch bags. This time, 100 volunteers showed up and worked at sandwich-making, love-note-writing and bag-decorating stations. “We had music, took dance breaks, hug-a-stranger breaks, and held awkward staring contests,” Relan recalls.

When Relan and his friends searched on the hashtag, they found events popping up in cities around the world, inspired by images carried far and wide on social media. The events often reflect the incredible diversity of a host city: In his hometown of Los Angeles, Relan sees people who otherwise would not be at the same table (and his 2-year-old daughter hasn’t missed an event). Even when participants’ intentions are to check off a community service requirement or to socialize, Relan observes they end up working as a team for something much bigger—and many people comment that the events restore their faith in humanity.

Small acts feed many hearts and minds

Today, #HashtagLunchbag continues as a program of the nonprofit Living Through Giving Foundation, which Relan and his friends established in the wake of lunch-making success. Living Through Giving values the collective impact of seemingly small gestures—including empowering and inspiring others. “You don’t have to be the sole person responsible for this gigantic role of changing every other person,” Relan explains. “You can be a human being, pursue your dreams, be flawed and still make an impact.”

Living Through Giving also values the significance of impact on both the giver and the receiver of an act of kindness. That’s why the organization’s tag line is “Feed and feel love.” Relan says that just as working out is vital for physical health, “you have to perform acts outside of yourself like kindness, compassion and empathy—to keep your mind in shape.”

To find or host an event, donate or find other ways to get involved, visit http://www.hashtaglunchbag.org/get-involved.

Video credit: Vlad_Jakovlev/Pond5, Adobe Stock
Photo credit: mangostock, Thinkstockl daemon.m; jenjphoto; aubrey_pleasant


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Robin Rootenberg

Robin Rootenberg is managing editor for 24Life and 24Life TV. Nothing makes her happier than the possibility of one more person rediscovering the joy of movement, or trying something new. A UC Berkeley grad, her writing and communications career spans more than two decades, and she’s been running for even longer.