INDIANAPOLIS — The shut down of in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic put ample light on two things for an Indianapolis pediatrician. One of which was childhood food insecurity.
Many kids receive their only nutritious meal of the day at school. For some, it's the only meal they'll receive for the day.
The pandemic's impact on feeding programs made things even grimmer, as it was harder for organizations to reach children.
"It unmasked really the need for schools to feed children," Dr. Manasa Mantravadi told WRTV. She's the founder and inventor of "Ahimsa," a stainless steel line of children's tableware.
The second thing Dr. Mantravadi took a pointed look at due to the pandemic was exactly how kids receive food.
"I noticed my own children were eating out of this reusable plastic (at school), which is a step up from the single-use disposable, but I looked at it, and I saw that it was etched and scratched and, to me, that was a real health concern," Dr. Mantravadi said. "The school lunch tray hasn't been changed, really, since the 1940s. That's a big problem."
Mantravadi says that as a society, we now know plastic is not great for the planet or children's health.
The pediatrician already created a chemical- and plastic-free dishware line for the home, so she asked herself, why not develop a tray for schools made of the same material?
"If we want to make real, meaningful change — yes, the products of the home, they're lovely, they're beautiful — but how do we change the system? How do we kind of rehaul everything? And a lot of that has to do with institutional change," Mantravadi explained.
Recently, Ahimsa launched its first line of stainless steel cafeteria trays at The Orchard School on the northwest side of Indianapolis.
Mantravadi says the initial results have been significantly positive.
"The children love it, the staff love it in terms of being able to use it; it's very easy to clean, which is really important to me as a mom," Mantravadi said, laughing. "Now we're just looking to kind of do this in every cafeteria across the country."
The Ahimsa Cafeteria Line has now also made its way into a second school: This one, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Plus, with each purchase of the Cafeteria Line or the Kids Set, Ahimsa gives a portion of the money to No Kid Hungry and The Patachou Foundation, who are helping end childhood hunger.
"That's my big dream is to have changed the whole system. And hopefully, really advocate for better policies and oversight of the products we're putting in front of children," Mantravadi said. "Because, at the core of all of this, that's the problem is that the legislation and the kinds of oversight and policies are based on 1950s science and not 2018, 2020 science."
Ahimsa's work is bigger than plates.
Over two years ago, Mantravadi developed her first invention, the Ahimsa Kids Set. It followed a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics about the harmful chemicals found in plastics. It advised parents to stop using kids' dishware made of plastic.
"You walk down the store, all the aisles, and all there were were plastic options. And so that's when I really realized there's a big disconnect between what we're recommending based on science, based on medicine, based on our analogy of health, and the industry," Mantravadi explained.
Although the idea of stainless steel tableware may be new to Western culture, it was not unique to Mantravadi and her Indian heritage. She grew up eating off steel plates and bowls, not the plastic ones she found herself using to feed her children.
"I really felt compelled to say, 'Well, I mean, I've got a solution based on my own upbringing.' How can I bring that to life and offer it to all the other parents in the United States of America so they can have the safe option?"
What started as a way to bridge a gap between science-based recommendations and product development morphed itself into an even bigger mission for Ahimsa.
The pediatrician-owned and supported company was founded on bettering children's health. To do that, decreasing plastic's impact on the planet and humans is crucial.
"We need a planet for them to thrive in. That's great if we keep them healthy, but if the planet is crumbling, they have no planet for future generations," Mantravadi said. "People and the planet are connected. And the lasting impact between the two of those is not felt by us — it's felt by our children. It is our job to fix this for them."
'I have a really special village'
Mantravadi, 40, is a pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children, a business owner, an inventor, and is also a mom of three.
To say she's busy would be the understatement of the year.
She says that mothers tend to get a feeling of guilt as a woman. Whether they're a working mother or a stay-at-home mom, she describes a sense that women constantly fear they're not doing enough for their children.
"Then, suddenly, you hear your child say, 'I want to be an inventor just like you, mommy. I want to change the world,'" Mantravadi said.
Mantravadi says the biggest reward for her is hearing her 5- and 8-year-olds talk about plastics' effect on the planet, composting, and taking care of each other.
As Ahimsa has grown from being a local product to a nationally-recognized necessity on the dinner tables of celebrities, Mantravadi says it's her face on everything. However, she says, she couldn't do it all without her family, colleagues at work, and her team of local friends who all now work at Ahimsa.
"I have the best support system in the world," Mantravadi explained to WRTV. "They say it takes a village to raise a family; it also takes a village to support someone through medical school and residency. It takes a village for somebody to start a company. I have a really special village."
You can buy Ahimsa's dishware at Nordstrom, Bye Bye Baby, and ahimsahome.com.
WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.