Sixteen thousand tonnes. In more familiar metric units, sixteen million kilograms. According to a study done by the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp), that is the amount of food waste that is generated by Malaysians, daily.
Let’s put the numbers into perspective, shall we?
The total mass of a Perodua Myvi is said to be approximately 980 kilograms. Mathematically, Malaysians are disposing about 16,327 Myvi’s weight in food daily.
Breaking it down further, that’s 681 Myvi’s worth of excess food being wasted per hour. If that isn’t anxiety-inducing, something is wrong somewhere.
“Feed the hungry, not the landfill,” is a motto that members and volunteers of The Lost Foods Project (TLFP) live by.
Founded in 2016, TLFP was born out of Suzanne Mooney’s horror watching grocery staff throwing away slightly bruised but completely edible bananas that simply “couldn’t be displayed on the shelves.”
“As a journalist, Suzanne was constantly on her feet. She wanted to do something and watching those bananas get thrown away, she rallied all the parents at our children’s school, and that’s how the project started,” says Angelia Chin-Sharpe, President and founding member of TLFP.
In its inception, the parents, Angelia included, negotiated with Jason’s, a grocer located in Bangsar Shopping Complex. “We chose Jason’s because all of us stay around the area, so it was a matter of convenience.”
“We were in discussions with them, and soon after, we were collecting their excess food to be distributed in various charities located in Bangsar and Damansara Heights.”
Starting with just 4 charities, TLFP now redirects excess food to 56 charities and 2 PPR (low-cost housing) communities in Lembah Pantai and Gombak. The lack of funding meant that TLFP has heavily relied on word of mouth to get where they are today, having grown from having a measly 10 volunteers to over 700 registered volunteers, and 150 active volunteers.
Adeline, Angelia’s former neighbour, was looking to give back after spending most of her life in the corporate world.
“When you’re working, you don’t have the time to think about anything else. I was talking to my family about giving back to the community when Angelia approached me, and that’s how I got roped in,” she laughs.
Adeline founded the Pasar Borong Kuala Lumpur wholesale market initiative, as well as the TLFP PPR initiative.
TLFP collects food from Pasar Borong Kuala Lumpur thrice a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
“It is Malaysia’s biggest wholesale market that houses about 442 stalls. By the end of the day, vendors know which items can no longer be sold. Even if they keep it, new stocks will come in from Cameron Highlands at midnight. Even if they do store the unsold produce, customers will demand fresh ones, not ones that have been stored overnight. On good days, we struggle to close the doors of a five-tonne truck - that’s how much excess food there is,” Adeline adds.
The load, which tends to include produce like spinach, cabbage, cucumber, chillies and even pumpkins is stocked at their warehouse, which is shared with the Red Crescent society.
Volunteers wait on-site to sort out the food. According to Adeline, less than 10% of the food is considered inedible. The next morning, charities arrive at the warehouse to collect the food.
True to their zero-waste nature, the inedible leftovers are turned into compost, which is then collected by compost company representatives.
As for the PPR housing programme, Monday’s load heads to Gombak, and Friday’s, to Lembah Pantai.
“There are six zones that have been targeted by YB Fahmi Fadzil and his office in Lembah Pantai, but because the area is so massive, we target individuals that are below the B40 group. The TLFP truck stops in Pantai EcoPark, and residents from selected zones make their way in bikes, cars, and lorries,” says Adeline.
Each time, TLFP provides the families with food to last them at least four days. Having started out with just Jason’s (grocer), TLFP now collects excess food from bigger names, such as the BIG Grocers, Giant group, Unilever, and Dutch Lady.
“I remember a mother from the PPR housing. Her daughter was severely malnourished, but three months into eating the food we redirected to them, she’s doing a lot better,” Adeline adds.
“Some charities we work with cannot afford meat. They can afford to buy two chickens, and those two chickens have to be shared by 100 individuals.”
You don’t need 150 varieties of food to say that you’ve had a good meal.
TLFP has debated redirecting meat products, but food safety is a concern. The logistics process is complex, as volunteers have to constantly check the temperature of the meat to ensure they are safe for consumption.
TLFP doesn’t limit itself to food products. Several months ago, they received a large number of sanitary pads from one of their partners. Together, they launched the Period Poverty programme.
“We not only distributed the sanitary napkins to the charities that we were already working with, but we also took the time to educate the young children about women’s health,” Angelia continues.
To date, TLFP has rescued almost one million kilogrammes of excess food and has prevented 1.8 million kilograms of greenhouse gas from being released into the environment.
While the rest of the world chases after metal straws and eco boba cups, both Angelia and Adeline think that it is a time for introspection.
“Food wastage is something that we need to take seriously. It doesn’t just contribute to climate change, it also causes a hike in the price of produce, because the demand just cannot meet the supply,” Angelia adds.
She is strongly against the idea of buffets - “you don’t need 150 varieties of food to say that you’ve had a good meal.”
If anything, this is a calling. A calling to take a good, hard look at our behaviour as consumers, and a calling to learn the value of food. This is a calling to feed the hungry, and not the landfill.