Waste not, want not…

While it’s unfortunate that unwanted food is being thrown to waste, a new movement has surfaced with the idea to help the society understand the need to restrain, conserve and give more to those in need

by AZALEA AZUAR/ pic by TMR FILE

EACH time you stand in the buffet line with a huge plate in your hands, struggling with the decision on which item to try first, take a deep breath, close your eyes and imagine the plight of the more unfortunate souls who are struggling to even put food on their plates.

While some can’t even afford a proper meal, many out there might not have anything for days.

While you ponder on the fate of others, digest this: According to former Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, Malaysia produces 3,000 tonnes of edible food wastage per day.

Sadly, the amount could easily feed approximately 2.2 million people!

A study by the Waste and Resources Action Programme in 2007 showed that food wastage would usually be a result of excessive purchases; inadequate food organisation; preparing more food than necessary; hypersensitivity to expiry date; being too fussy with food; impromptu spring cleaning and increasing perishable food purchases.

According to a research conducted by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, household waste makes up the majority of the estimated food waste in Malaysia with 3,192,404 tonnes being thrown into the garbage per year.

Then, there’d be the wet and dry markets which throw out 2,040,929 tonnes per year, as well as food courts and restaurants which waste 1,941,608 tonnes of food per year.

While it’s unfortunate that unwanted food is being thrown to waste, a new movement has surfaced with the idea to help the society understand the need to restrain, conserve and give more to those in need.

Certain quarters now see the importance of food banks and the necessity to “rescue” unwanted food.

I think the best way is to understand the food culture in Malaysia and optimise it, says Mohd Syazwan – pic by ARIF KARTONO

Rescuing Unwanted Food

The Lost Food Project (TLFP) was established in 2016 as one of the food bank pioneers in the country.

It all started with former BBC journalist Suzanne Mooney who was collecting bananas from Jason’s Food Hall in Bangsar and the manager allowed her to redistribute it.

TLFP GM Mohd Syazwan Mokhtar said before the food bank was established, markets had no options but to send it for composting or give them to people to feed livestock.

However, they don’t give the surplus food in huge amounts.

“They had to throw it away. That’s just how they’d been doing it for years before we came in and requested it to be given to us for the redistribution.

“Pasar Borong Kuala Lumpur (KL) has been very supportive. The vendors have been great and they are willing to give us the surpluses for redistribution,” he told The Malaysian Reserve recently.

Pasar Borong KL in Selayang, with more than 400 vendors, has been TLFP’s biggest hull in terms of food collection.

Now, TLFP owns four trucks and two warehouses. Each warehouse has a specific purpose. One is used for staging, while the other is for sorting and collection.

“In terms of the process of our operation, we have two types — one is the fresh ingredient collection that is done every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We go to Pasar Borong KL almost at the end of the day around 4pm to 5pm,” Mohd Syazwan said.

Since vegetables turn bad very quickly, vendors are unable to sell them on the same day, so they will have to discard the lot before a fresh supply comes the following day.

Since TLFP came in and made arrangements with the vendors, the vegetables which are still good and edible are rescued to be redistributed.

TLFP would distribute the surplus food to the People’s Housing Programme flats in Gombak and Lembah Pantai, and also a portion to the 56 charities that are registered to the project.

“Whatever collections we receive from Pasar Borong KL are fresh ingredients, mostly vegetables. So, the total recipients can vary between 10,000 and 15,000 people, depending on the amount of collection we get on the day,” Mohd Syazwan said.

On a good day, each collection can amass up to three tonnes of vegetables, but on lower days such as during the monsoon season, the collection can go down to as low as 900kg.

“We also have dried goods and operationally, it is very simple. For example, if a supermarket has a surplus of dried goods like rice…It can be essential items like sugar, salt or powdered milk,” he added.

TLFP’s food partners also provide them with dried goods.

Festive Seasons, a Dumpsite for Food

Malaysia — being a melting pot of different cultures, races and religions — is a country of celebrations.

While we rejoice with the fact that we have a lot of holidays, the downside is that food is mostly wasted during the festive seasons.

“There was a story last year during Ramadhan, when 10 or 12 tonnes of food were being wasted at the end of each day by the many bazaars,” Mohd Syazwan lamented.

While Ramadhan is certainly the month of giving, too many people are giving food to the homeless — and they can only eat so much!

“Too many people are doing the same thing, which is giving food to the homeless in KL. So each homeless person could end up with five or six packets of food.

“In the end, you can see food being given away and then thrown away…It’s not ideal in that sense.”

TFLP does not handle cooked food, but only fresh ingredients and dried goods.

“I think the best way is to understand the food culture in Malaysia and optimise it because it’s not good for the manufacturers, hotels and event companies to order so much food.

“It’s also a waste on their resources and their finances. So, I think we need to re-strategise and rethink the way we approach food in Malaysia.”

Gluttony is in Our Culture

We love our food so much, that’s for sure. We certainly would get offended if a foreigner criticises our food. Especially our chicken rendang and nasi lemak!

“The food culture in Malaysia is that we are a bit gluttonous in terms of the amount of food that we eat. It’s just the way we approach food. So, I think it’s best to know proportions to be healthier,” Mohd Syazwan said.

Consumers should also be able to identify the kind of food that is healthy and how much intake is safe. Mohd Syazwan said the habit should be inculcated among the younger people in schools.

“Education is very important and children should know what’s healthy for them, and what is the right amount of food, so the next generation is able to shift their mindset towards food and to not waste it,” he said.

Mohd Syazwan said restaurants should also be able to optimise their resources by planning their budget and food resources.

Waste is Hazardous to the Environment

Food waste makes up the majority of the landfills, while its decomposition contributes to the greenhouse gas emission.

It is unfortunate that landfills contribute mostly, or up to 47% of the methane gas which causes the thinning of the ozone layer.

The scary part is, methane is 21 times more potent compared to carbon dioxide.

TLFP is not just about rescuing food and feeding the poor, but they are also propagating sustainability efforts.

“We’re looking at reducing carbon emission. For example, we’ve collected about 1.2 million kg of food since we started in 2016. This provides about 3.8 million meals to the needy.

“At the same time, we’ve been able to reduce not just wastage from the food that was rescued, but also two million kg of carbon emissions.”

For Mohd Syazwan, this is considered a big deal in saving the environment in terms of climate change and greenhouse gases.

“Giving food to the underserved community creates a more sustainable livelihood. They can have healthy and quality food to eat and not having to really worry about buying food and vegetables,” he explained.

Mohd Syazwan added that the initiative also help the people to not only carry out sustainability efforts, but also create healthier families.

Programmes and Challenges

In order to raise awareness, TLFP also invites the public to join their programmes and challenges.

One of its programmes is the “Ramadhan Twenty100” which was carried out last year during the month of Ramadhan.

“The reception was really good. It was well-received because we could see a lot of efforts in trying to understand the different cultures in Malaysia.

“What we’ve created, in terms of the campaign itself, is if you’re not going out for lunch during Ramadhan, why don’t you give your lunch money for a good cause?” Mohd Syazwan said.

For TLFP, a mere RM20 can feed about 100 people because the surplus food they receive is free, while the manpower is driven by the volunteers.

TLFP’s other project, “My Clean Plate Challenge”, is an effort to make the public understand that if one puts food on their plate, then they will need to finish it.

“We do not want food wastage. You pay for a whole meal, you pay for a whole plate, and you eat the food as how much you pay, so we can reduce the amount of waste going to landfills and reduce carbon emission and all,” he said.

Apart from the current campaigns, TLFP is hoping to start a monthly public funding campaign this year.

“We find that Malaysia is one of the countries in Asia, also in the world, where people like to give. So a monthly donation campaign will help a lot of people,” Mohd Syazwan said.

Increasing Awareness on Food Waste

Meanwhile, on another side of KL, in Imbi to be exact, is Kechara Soup Kitchen, a journey that began with a Tibetan monk Tsem Rinpoche, who experienced homelessness in India.

When he came to Malaysia and saw people sleeping on the streets, Rinpoche decided to establish a food bank to feed the poor.

According to Kechara Soup Kitchen operations director Justin Cheah, the project managed to feed about 23,487 people last year.

He said the number could multiply if the supply of food could be increased.

However, the amount of surplus food that Kechara Soup Kitchen has been collecting seems to have reduced due to the increasing awareness among the public regarding food waste.

“More and more people start to understand that they should not waste food. We get random calls from the public requesting us to collect unused food.

“In fact, the zero food wastage initiative is with the help of Tengku Zatashah, Sultan of Selangor’s daughter. She has also rallied with the hotels,” Cheah explained.

A Lot of Waste from the Supplier Chain

Apart from supplying food to the poor, Kechara Soup Kitchen is also doing its part to encourage zero waste initiatives.

Planning is one of the key factors to ensure that food is not being wasted.

In fact, Cheah believes that the biggest amount of food wastage comes from the supplier chain.

“For instance, not all vegetables grow 100% to how you like it. There are also some that are not as marketable. Vegetables are graded before being pushed to wholesale buyers. When something is not so presentable, of course, people will reject it,” he said.

Cheah said it doesn’t make sense for farmers to bring the unsold vegetables to the farm because even they themselves don’t want to eat it.

Even if the unwanted vegetables are sent for composting, there’s only so much that could be salvaged.

“There are a lot of challenges in food rescuing. For example, a lot of people don’t know we actually use a lot of our resources to go around rescuing food,” said Cheah.

Finding Solutions

In order to break the cycle of poverty, Kechara Soup Kitchen also makes an effort to bring the homeless out of the streets.

“We should be doing something about it rather than just feeding them. We should introduce them to the job market or bring them to a shelter home, whatever it is,” said Cheah.

When it comes to finding a suitable job for them, Cheah needs to know these homeless individuals better, which is why Kechara Soup Kitchen registers every homeless that are fed.

“When we register, we take photos of them. Then, we take more information about their backgrounds. Based on the data we collected, we’d also find out other underlying problems that surround homelessness and the society which would lead to homelessness in the first place.”

According to the statistics that Cheah found, the root cause of poverty is mainly them being school dropouts.

“They’re likely unable to compete with another person for the job. They can only compete with the foreign workers because of their qualifications. When we looked further into the data, we also found 79% of these people are actually from the underprivileged category.”

Cheah referred to single parenthood, broken families, abusive parents and neglected children as part of the big picture.

“From the poverty side, we found that the people in the bracket are unlikely to break their cycle because they do not plan or do not even have the capacity to plan. They are always on the negative side of things,” he said.

Those suffering from poverty are unable to pay off loans, unsure how to start a business and have poor family planning.

The Govt’s Initiative

To achieve an efficient and effective food waste management, the National Solid Waste Management Department has come up with the Food Waste Management Development Plan for Industry, Commercial and Institution Sector (2016-2026).

This plan is established in line with the Solid 2 Waste Management Policy (2016) and the Strategic Plan of National Solid Waste Management Department (2016-2020).

This plan includes providing specific strategies towards effective food waste management in every stage, which starts from waste generation to its disposal.

It emphasises on the responsibility of the waste generator and other stakeholders.

For instance, to reduce the amount of waste ending up in landfills, the plan looks at the 3R concept which is Reuse, Reduce and Recycle.

Established by the government in December 2018, the Food Bank Malaysia Programme (FBM) tackles food waste issues while helping to reduce the cost of living for local consumers.

The initiative works on a voluntary basis without a major financial commitment by the government.

FBM has managed to save 1,984 metric tonnes of food from being wasted and delivered them to 476,250 household members and 12,251 students from 21 universities involved in the Student Food Bank Programme since it began operations in August 2018 right up to November 2019.

A distribution centre for the FBM is also expected to be established in Bukit Angkat, Kajang, and it is expected to begin operation this month.

Yayasan Food Bank Malaysia and Nestlé (M) Bhd also signed a memorandum of understanding as part of an ongoing commitment to help underprivileged families by supplying them food.

In this two-year partnership, Nestlé’s products will be provided to over 50,000 low-income families and hardcore poor nationwide to ensure they have enough food and access to a nutritious diet.