Perhaps one of life’s greatest injustices is when one person sleeps on a full stomach while another scours desperately for food a few feet away. While this is a direct consequence of the inequality that exists between people throughout the world, the situation is made a lot worse by the huge amounts of food that goes to waste each day due to improper management and disposal of leftovers.
“You cannot imagine the amount of food being wasted these days from buffet leftovers. This untouched food can fill the stomachs of around 100 to 150 people every day,” says Zoone Abbas, the CEO of Thali foundation, a non-profit organisation which set up its ‘Be my guest’ programme five years ago to ensure that food which would otherwise go to waste found its way to those who need it the most. A whopping 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted annually, according to statistics by the Food and Agriculture Organization. This means that one third of all food produced globally, with a retail equivalent of $1 trillion is wasted each year. In addition to the retail cost of wasted food, there is also $700 billion lost in natural resources. This figure includes $172 billion in wasted water, $42billion in cleared forests, and $429 billion in related greenhouse gas costs. Moreover, it takes a minimum of 2,000 litres of water to produce a kilogramme of rice and around 15,000 litres to produce a kilogramme of red meat, as defined by the World Health Organization. Keeping in mind the numerous resources that go into food production, the current disregard for food wastage is alarming. Hence, organisations such as Thali might be an exception but they are a step in the right direction. “Our aim is to play the role of the middle man so that those who hardly get a meal can be fed through meals the more fortunate take for granted,” says Abbas.
When they started out, Abbas along with her team knocked on the doors of several restaurants and hotels but the response was quiet unwelcoming initially. Individuals, on the other hand, responded to their requests a lot more favourably. There were a few exceptions, however, in the form of small-scale restaurants and an Islamabad-based telecom company that started providing Thali with its lunch buffet leftovers on weekdays, which was then distributed to the needy. The bulk of its food supplies comes from private dinners, parties, weddings and events which is used to feed nearly 150 people daily. The contribution can either be made on behalf of the host or the catering companies that are taking care of the food at the event.
Even though Thali has been advocating its cause for a couple of years now, acquiring enough food on a daily basis still remains a challenge. Its greatest struggle so far has not just been procuring food but also salvaging food items that might go to waste otherwise or are disposed off carelessly. There has been a noticeable change in people’s attitudes though as they become more aware of the correct way to deal with leftovers and unwanted food.
Thali currently operates in Rawalpindi and Islamabad where meal packs are distributed outside markets, hospitals and even at traffic signals to children, labourers and anyone who is in need. The foundation also reaches out to flood and disaster victims, as well as internally displaced persons. Plans to kickstart the initiative in Lahore are also in the pipeline.
Along with being the facilitator, Thali also aims to inculcate a practice among people of donating food on their own, as summarised aptly in their motto ‘khali karo ya thali karo’ (either finish the food on your plate or share it with the less fortunate). Ahmed Rafay Alam, an environmental activist, wholeheartedly endorses this motto since he feels that those producing the waste should also take responsibility for it. Moreover, Pakistan is also extremely vulnerable to climate change and will see a 50% reduction in crop yield by 2030, according to the German Watch’s Global Climate Risk Index of 2012. These resources are already under pressure due to, “severe flooding, agricultural malpractices, and local governance.” Rabia Manzoor, a research analyst at Sustainable Development Policy Institute cautions that by wasting resources we are risking livelihoods and causing adverse effects on food insecurity. The situation will only be made worse by food wastage which will further drive up prices in developing nations.
Judging by the current situation, it may be a long wait or even too late by the time waste management and recycling schemes are imposed and implemented in urban and rural areas across Pakistan. Hence, a far more feasible alternative is to utilise the wilting vegetables and perfectly good food that we know nobody is going to eat. On an individual level, we can all learn a lesson from the anonymous man who placed a refrigerator outside his neighbourhood in Saudi Arabia, according to BBC reports. It was said to be an invitation for neigbours to donate their extra food and for people in need to help themselves. The initiative created waves on social media as people called on mosques and households to put out more fridges in an attempt to feed not only the body, but the soul through a great act of charity.
Sadaf Parvez is a freelance writer and blogger. She tweets @sadafpervez
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 28th, 2014.