Three years ago, Milan Varma moved from a suburban town in Massachusetts to the outskirts of Philadelphia and noticed that, unlike his former town, not everyone had what they needed to survive. It was a realization that Ethan, his friend and role model, also had in 2021 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the community hard. Ethan founded Food4Philly, a student-run 501(c)(3) with a mission to reduce food waste and connect people facing food insecurity with nutritious meals in the greater Philadelphia area. Two years later, he handed the reigns to Milan and his co-president before heading to college.
In just a few short years—and with Milan at the helm — the organization has already made its mark with more than 115 members in 12 chapters donating more than 20,000 pounds of food and raising upwardsof $20,000. Milan is now a 16-year-old high school junior with a passion for writing and robotics and a soft spot for history. He practices the tabla, a traditional Indian drum, in between organizing food distribution events, recording a podcast and scheduling volunteers. His recent mock trial win will move him to the next stage, adding another competition to his tightly packed schedule, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
What inspires you to volunteer?
From a young age, my parents, who are immigrants from India, taught me and my siblings that we can make a difference through action. We volunteered at food pantries and made food at shelters. Three years ago, I moved from Wellesley, Massachusetts, a suburban town where I’d lived most of my life, to Bryn Mawr, a more urban area outside Philadelphia. It was a completely different environment. In my area and nearby towns, I have friends with contacts or neighbors who are struggling.
That opened my eyes to the food insecurity in our local communities. One of the ways I’ve been addressing it is by getting other kids involved, because as you grow older, those experiences are really valuable.
Tell us about your volunteer role with Food4Philly.
We run the day-to-day operations. Our co-founders are still with the organization, but they’re in college now, and that’s much busier than the high school. So, it’s mostly on me and my co-president to manage our chapters, run and plan events and oversee the team.
We also oversee what are essentially “regional managers” and run weekly meetings. We manage partnerships with other organizations and host the 4 Philly podcast to help inspire the younger generation. Recently, we spoke with Miss Pamela Rainey Lawler, founder of Philabundance, one of the biggest organizations fighting hunger in the mid-Atlantic region. In general, we plan for the future and do business stuff.
What are your long-term plans or goals for the organization?
We want to scale the organization, work with more partners, increase membership and make things more efficient. We’ve done a lot of fundraising recently and have created a long-term business plan that we also use for grants. We want to use funds to establish connections with local food banks and other student-run organizations. I’d also like to find more organizations with local and global experience in this field that we can learn from.
We’re always looking to expand. Our business plan outlines chapter responsibilities and ensures that we can make the organization sustainable. I’ll be a senior next year, and finding successors for our roles is a big part of ensuring longevity. And staying organized and being balanced is important for both myself and the organization.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
This summer, I went with our co-founders to a Juneteenth event and gave away food. The organization we worked with, Sharing Access, gives perfectly good food that might otherwise go to waste to people who could use it. It’s rewarding when people are getting meals from an organization like ours. Some of them don’t know when they’ll have another one. I saw a lot of smiles at the event, and I got to talk about what we do and how I got involved. People always say they wish they’d gotten involved at a younger age.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
Around 113 billion pounds of food goes to waste each year in the U.S. There are also statistics on how many meals go to waste, which is even more mind blowing. I’ve also learned things by running an organization that I don’t think I would have learned anywhere else. And I’ve learned to holding myself accountable. There have been events where miscommunications have happened, and the stakes are real.
Miscommunications can result in people not getting the meal they expected for the day. That’s drastic, but my actions have real consequences.
Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?
I don’t want to exhaust the idea of youth civic engagement, but I believe you learn a lot from that. There are a lot of lessons in service, and it’s very rewarding. I see it as a duty, because my community—especially my family–has given me so much. Service is a way of showing gratitude.
Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?
Logistically, it’s challenging to establish yourself as a nonprofit, make your mission unique, and get other students on board. Pitch your idea as something good for the community and a learning experience. Once you have a following, you’ll learn from the people around you. All you have to do is take the first step. It gives you momentum. And mentors are some of the best resources.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
I didn’t have a passion for food insecurity when I joined. After working with Food4Philly for almost eight months, I’ve developed a passion. That’s what I hope my story gets across. You don’t have to have passion when you join. People develop it when they take that leap.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Milan? Find local volunteer opportunities.