Sarayu Kocharlakota, 17, still cannot believe that a vending machine she created has now distributed over 6,000 free snacks to a middle school in the Los Angeles area. Inspired by her volunteer service with Welcoming Interim Shared Housing (WISH), she founded Vendigo, a free vending machine with the goal of offering healthy snacks to people who are unhoused and under resourced communities.
Currently, one of her vending machines is installed in Audubon Middle School, and she is installing two machines in two additional schools. Her goal is to get Vendigo vending machines out in the greater community as well, so those facing food insecurity can have access to healthy snacks whenever they need.
In the schools, the vending machines operate with tokens that are handed out to all students. Sarayu said that it’s not about who gets access to free snacks, it’s about offering access to everyone. She said that growing up in Los Angeles made her realize how fortunate she is to have access to food whenever she needs it, and she wants to someday offer that same situation to those who need it most.
What inspires you to volunteer?
When I was younger, I’d always be happy when I received gifts from my parents or when I received gifts from my friends. But as I grew older, I realized volunteering teaches you the art of giving, and the art of giving, honestly, has made me a better person. Also, it has opened my eyes to the importance of doing service for my community because we are all in this together, and we all need to try to keep our eyes open to the world around us, and not only on ourselves.
Describe your volunteer role with WISH.
I have about three main roles with WISH. I am the publicist for WISH, so I make flyers. For example, this last month, I made a flyer about all the upcoming events. Also, I help distribute food at Saturday events. And then I’m the face of Vendigo. I came up with this initiative, so I handle Vendigo tasks.
How did you come up with the idea of Vendigo?
Where I grew up in Los Angeles, I would see a lot of unhoused people. It’s a big problem here, and I feel that it’s so unfair that some people don’t get food for days because I know I get hungry without food for two hours. So, food insecurity has always been one of the problems that I really wanted to try to help and contribute my part to solve. When I volunteer at the WISH Saturday events, I distribute food for a span of two hours. However, there are still people that don’t know about where we’re handing out food, or don’t know this location and they can’t access the food.
I also think it’s unfair that some people aren’t able to have access to food 24/7, when I’m able to get that access at home. So, I was thinking of ideas and how I could make food more available, 24/7, and it felt logical to set up vending machines. My school has a vending machine, and it helps me a lot – I can get food whenever I forget to pack myself a lunch. With vending machines, anyone can go up to one and can get the food inside. The food in Vendigo – it’s free with the use of dummy tokens. I have one set up in my school, and it’s completely free. I just felt that it was a logical idea to set up vending machines where the food is accessible 24/7 rather than just a period of two hours on a Saturday.
What are the next steps for Vendigo?
I put the first vending machine in Audubon Middle School, and honestly, seeing how much it’s helped the kids has just motivated me to keep going. It’s a challenging process, but when kids come up to me and tell me that this food helped them when they didn’t have breakfast that day really warms my heart. It makes me want to put up vending machines in more schools and communities. So, we’re about to install another vending machine in Wigan Elementary School, and recently the community center manager of Ottawa Middle School decided to install one there as well. I also want to put a vending machine outside of the WISH office because a lot of people pass by there.
I just want this project to grow, as in I want these vending machines to be in more schools that either want it or need it, and I want to put them up in community centers too. Also, I want people to be able to learn from my experience and be able to set this up in their communities as well. On my website, I have the entire procedure on how I started this project because I want people to be able to implement it in their cities as well.
I’m also in the process of applying for some grants because paying for all the food by myself and from donations from friends and families is not sustainable long term.
You said that the CEO of WISH, Malik Owens, is your mentor. Why do you think it’s important to have mentors?
Okay, first of all, I am only 17, right? I’m young! And when I first had the idea of a free vending machine, I never, ever thought that I could even pull it off because – where do I even get a vending machine? Where do I put the vending machine? How do I move a vending machine? In the beginning, my parents were shocked by the idea.
I was already volunteering for WISH before I even spoke about this idea to Malik, and I just felt like partnering with such a good nonprofit organization and getting Malik’s help would be invaluable. He helped me find locations and helped me coordinate moving the vending machine into to the school.
He’s just a guide there for me whenever I have questions, and this is a challenging journey, but a rewarding journey. Having a mentor is so important. I can rely on and ask any questions that I need because I know for a fact I can’t do this all by myself. I learned from Malik how to communicate with school’s principals and teachers, and I’ve learned a lot from that process.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
The whole journey has been rewarding, but when I set up the first vending machine in Audubon Middle School, we had a grand opening for my vending machine, and I gave a little speech and kids came up to me and they told me that they loved this idea. One teacher came up to me after I gave my speech and started crying saying, “This is going to change our school, this is such an amazing idea and we really appreciate it.” That was the first, most rewarding thing that’s ever happened.
Also, a week after I set the machine up, I went back to the school and I just saw a huge line of kids just getting food, and I didn’t even know if people were going to use it. So, the fact that there was a line of kids excited to grab a snack from the machine made me so happy.
Why is it important for others to get involved in causes they care about?
I’ve just learned this about myself, that when I’m this passionate about something I’ll be able to convey it and I’ll be able to make it happen. When I’m passionate about something, I’m just going to get the output no matter what. Also, it’s such a rewarding experience. You only live once. You’ve got to do what you feel you want to make an impact on.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
So, I’m in school, I have hard classes and I’m stressed all the time, but I can’t sacrifice something that I’m this passionate about just for school. I balance both, but the fact that I was able to do this project during school makes me want to tell people that it’s going to be challenging. I still can’t believe I was able to get this output, but you really have to believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, then no one’s going to believe in you. You have to believe in yourself first, and you have to know that whatever you put your mind to, you will get an output.
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