“BELI kuih, dik (buy some kuih, miss)?” coaxes the makcik, her smile wide. I return her smile but politely shake my head.
My tummy is grumbling as I stroll along the Ramadan bazaar in my hometown of Banting in Selangor trying to figure out what to have for ‘buka’ (breaking of fast).
Maybe I should buy the nasi lemak and then some kuih. Oh wait! That murtabak from that pakcik’s stall sure looks delicious. And what about the lemang and serunding? Why does food look extra delicious when you’re fasting? I wish I can buy everything!
Ramadan is the time when bazaars mushroom and customers from all walks of life converge for the same purpose — to buy food.
Sadly, not all the food end up reaching the plate. More often than not, much of it will just end up in the garbage.
Currently, up to 270,000 tonnes of food go to waste during Ramadan in Malaysia. The number doesn’t represent the waste from bazaars alone but also from hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and even our households.
Globally, roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted.
Many initiatives are being taken by organisations around the world to tackle this issue. The Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction (SAVE FOOD) under the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations was launched in 2011 and works together with the public and private sector as well as civil society worldwide.
France became the first country in the world to ban supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food, forcing them instead to donate to charities and food banks.
This ban is welcomed by food banks, which will now begin the task of finding the extra volunteers, lorries, warehouse and fridge space to deal with an increase in donations from shops and food companies.
Closer to home, The Lost Food Project (TLFP), a not-for-profit NGO established by PINK (Parents International Welfare Association of Kuala Lumpur) and includes Malaysians and expats, collects surplus food from supermarkets and manufacturers in the country and distributes them to those who really need it.
In conjunction with Ramadan, TLFP has been running a #DonateYourLunch fundraising campaign, aimed at bringing awareness on food wastage and encouraging Malaysians to donate their lunch money.
The NGO is looking to raise RM40,000 to hire a second truck driver in order to scale their collection and deliveries so that they can impact more communities.
What a waste
“During Ramadan, we’re supposed to be more thoughtful about food and think of others. Ironically, there’s more food waste,” begins Suzanne Mooney, the founder of TLFP when we meet at the Ramadan Bazaar in Bangsar Shopping Centre, KL a few hours before my return home to Banting.
Hailing from the UK, the former BBC journalist is well aware that Ramadan is an important time of the year for Muslims, a time when most make it a point to be with the family for the breaking of fast.
“And it’s very normal to want more food than you actually need during this time. After all, you haven’t eaten the whole day and naturally, you’re very hungry. What happens then is that you end up buying more than you need. My tip? Never shop for food when you’re hungry.”
It’s easy to point fingers at stores and other places, adds Mooney. But all of us should change and think about what we’re doing.
“You can still break your fast with your family, but don’t have a huge plate of food. Just eat in moderation.”
The attractive mother-of-three who’s been living here with her family for more than three years divulges that food waste is incredibly damaging to the economy and environment.
“Imagine how much money the Government has to spend to build more landfills to manage this waste. Millions if not billions. The money should be spent elsewhere on such things like healthcare, education or welfare.”
As for the environment, the waste produces greenhouse gases, which in turn go into the soil and the water. Soon, there’ll be no more arable land to plant food.
Says Mooney: “This is totally avoidable. It’s not just happening in Malaysia but globally. The whole world is addressing this food waste issue now. There’ll be a World Food Summit in Denmark this August and Malaysia will participate and discuss what the country is doing in terms of saving food.”
The #DonateYourLunch initiative is one way for the public to play their part in helping to reduce waste.
Malaysians are encouraged to join the cause by simply donating or being part of the social media movement to spread the word and create awareness.
Instagrammers and those on Facebook can take pictures of themselves skipping lunch or doing something meaningful during lunch time and sharing their posts with the following hashtags #DonateYourLunch and #TLFP and tag three other friends to join the movement.“We hope to raise RM40,000,” adds Mooney, her face earnest.
So what drives Mooney, an expatriate, to do this?
A small smile before she replies: “I’ve been to different countries and done a lot of voluntary work. I have friends in the UK who run food banks. Yes, we do have food banks in the UK as well as there are millions of people who don’t have food there. I had a group of friends here who wanted to try doing something charitable. So I said, why not?”
And so The Lost Food Project was born in 2015. This experience has certainly changed her perspective and practices, admits Mooney.
“I’m guilty of wasting food as well. But now I think twice before buying and cooking and I try to minimise food wastage.”
When we talk about food waste, it’s quite common for people to conjure up images of damaged food that they would never buy.
“It’s not the case here,” stresses Mooney, adding: “In fact, let’s not call it waste, but lost instead. The food, which is supposed to go into people’s tummy, gets lost somehow. This is because supermarkets buy so much to stock and they run out of space. So the older stock, which is still good, has to go. One time I collected bananas which were still green.”
The food collected by TLFP is stored in a refrigerated truck and will be distributed within 24 hours to over 20 charities such as those catering to single mothers, children, refugees, the homeless, urban poor and the elderly.
TLFP also has health and safety advisers on board. Every charity has a liaison person who will manage the food correctly.
“We won’t compromise on the safety of the food we distribute,” assures Mooney. “We also make sure they’re nutritious and are still in good quality. For example, we distribute food to the children at the paediatric-cancer ward in Hospital Kuala Lumpur. They need more vitamins and minerals to keep going. We can offer them that.”
The recipients are from a good mix of races, religion and background. “There’s no discrimination but priority goes to those who need it the most,” adds Mooney.
The organisation has also received some support from government departments. Last month, the Kuala Lumpur City Council (DBKL) provided free parking space within the Pasar Borong KL area for TLFP trucks to operate and collect all sorts of goods from the traders thrice weekly.
Collaborations of this kind not only serve to help feed those most in need, they also aid in reducing environmental waste.
Since its inception in 2015, TLFP volunteers have distributed over 50,000 kg of nutritious food and provided for over 100,000 meals around the Klang Valley in its first year of operations. The plan to expand nationwide is already in the pipeline.
“We’re a volunteer organisation. I hope we can get more volunteers and more partnerships in order to expand,” concludes Mooney.
Reducing food waste at home
• Refrain from overbuying. Those two-for-one deals are only worth it if you’re actually able to use up both bags of salad before they go bad. Stick to a shopping list at the grocery store.
• Many fruits and vegetables give off natural gases as they ripen, making other produce spoil faster. Store bananas, apples and tomatoes by themselves. Store fruits and vegetables in different bins.
• When stocking the fridge or pantry following a new trip to the store, bring older items to the front and put new food at the back.
• Freeze, preserve or can extra fruits and vegetables before they go bad.
• Salvage wilted, sad produce into soups, casseroles, stir fry, sauces, smoothies or baked goods.
• Reduce portion sizes. You can always go back for more.
• Learn the differences between expiry dates: “Best before” indicates the date until which the product will be at its optimum but does not indicate food safety. “Sell-by” date is an indicator for the store on how long to display the product on store shelves. “Use-by” date is the last date recommended for product use.
Donations can be made at www.bit.ly/TLFPdyl