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Sanjana Harihar provides nutritional support to the homeless

by Lisa DeAngelis

Sanjana Harihar was walking to her class one very cold morning at the University of Pittsburgh when, as she describes it, her “eyes were opened to the harsh reality of homelessness in our community.”

In the past, she had donated homemade masks to shelters during the COVID pandemic, but the misery she saw now was unfolding right in front of her.

Returning home from break, she was determined to help in a more immediate way. She decided she could be of the most service if she leveraged knowledge she had gained from her retina research lab at school. 

Sanjana is a biology major with a chemistry minor who plans to attend medical school after graduation. She was aware of the increased risk the homeless have for diabetes, tooth decay, and glaucoma, and knew many lack access to food pantries and shelters.

She realized that while many people donate generously, nutritional benefits of food donated are often missed.

The result was that Sanjana got her family to help her assemble 28 food bags containing nutritious items low in calories and sodium and high in protein and fiber, and drove them down to Philadelphia where they distributed the bags around the city. 

Sanjana is a graduate of Council Rock North High School. She is currently a junior and is excited to begin upper-level classes in microbiology.

She chose the University of Pittsburgh because their academics offered a lot of support in pre-health fields and because she enjoyed its proximity to the city. 

She has learned a lot about people who find themselves homeless since her first trip to deliver bags. “Many times, they don’t say much and are often too shy to come up and ask for the food.” But she has never seen reason to doubt how desperately the food is needed. “Many individuals opened the bags immediately and started to drink the water and eat the snacks. They were obviously very hungry.”

Some have spoken to Sanjana. “They mentioned that this was the first food they were eating that day. One person I gave the food to was actively digging through a trash can. Some of them told other people that I was distributing food bags and that they could ask me for one.”

Surprisingly, she reports there were a few people who declined her offer.  Sanjana has made many interesting observations.

From what she has personally seen, “The distribution of people seemed equal in gender and included white, black, and Asian individuals. Some were wrapped in trash bags,” their only protection from the cold. 

When asked what she has learned from this experience, Sanjana says, “It reaffirmed my understanding that the homeless population is substantial, growing, and more often than not underserved.” 

She is hoping to inspire others “to consider the nutritional aspects” when donating food.

Despite all the suffering she has witnessed firsthand, Sanjana has experienced some “beautiful moments” that have restored her faith in humanity. “I had offered a bag to a man, and he accepted it. He stayed back, so I offered him another bag. He accepted that one too and said he would give it to a friend. I didn’t assume he was lying exactly, but I thought he would just keep the extra bag for himself. But later, I saw him handing the bag to someone else. So often we do things to benefit ourselves, but this simple act of kindness was heartwarming.”

If you would like to work with Sanjana to donate, package, or distribute items, she welcomes you to contact her at 267-337-3567 or sanjana.harihar023@gmail.com

PHOTO CAP: Sanjana Harihar gives a food bag to a homeless man she encountered in her travels.

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