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Tea Leaves

'Lost food' project shows developing Asia how to tackle hunger

Small idea with big impact gives hope and nutrition for Malaysia's poor, and lessons for the world

Volunteers at the Lost Food Project sort fresh produce at a warehouses before sending the food out to charity partners. (Photos by the Lost Food Project)

The motto of the Lost Food Project, "Feed the hungry, not the landfill," stopped me in my tracks the first time I saw it. It was earlier this year, at the tail end of Malaysia's coronavirus lockdown, and I was looking for ways to contribute to worthy causes in my adopted country. "Feed the landfill" -- what did it mean?

As it turned out, this innovative Malaysian nonprofit group based in Kuala Lumpur aims to "rescue" food that typically gets lost -- thrown as waste into environmentally polluting landfills -- and use it to feed the needy.

Globally, food waste is a huge problem. Nearly one-third of all food produced goes to waste, according to United Nations estimates, while 820 million people go hungry. The Lost Food Project knows it cannot solve the world's food wastage problem. But it is making a difference in Malaysia, where 3,000 tons of edible food are thrown away each day -- enough, say the project's founders, to provide 10 million meals a year.

The project started small in 2015, with volunteers collecting boxes of surplus food from supermarkets and manufacturers around the capital, repackaging and channeling the "recycled" goods to those in need. Beneficiaries were typically local people at the bottom of the economic pyramid, and refugees with few legal rights.

With funding and support, the scheme now "rescues" roughly 10 tons of unwanted food per week. That is a small fraction of what potentially could be used to feed the hungry, but it is a big start. The food, mostly vegetables, fruit and groceries, is collected from supermarkets, manufacturers and wholesale markets and distributed to residents of the People's Housing Project (a housing scheme for the disadvantaged) and to charities that distribute it to vulnerable communities.

"I realized there's all that food out there which would just get thrown away, and there were so many people who could use it," Lost Food's founder Suzanne Mooney told me. "We got charities on board and spread awareness about sending excess food to the right places."

The idea was to give recipients "the dignity of cooking their own food," she said. "So we usually just supply the ingredients, usually a mixed bag of products like rice, eggs, bread and meats."

Fresh produce in trucks is ready for delivery to charity partners of the Lost Food Project.

From relative obscurity, the Lost Food Project has since grown into one of Malaysia's largest food banks, serving an average of 33,000 meals every week, rising through the pandemic to 290,000 in February, the latest month for which comprehensive figures are available.

The scale of wastage is striking as I walk through the fresh food markets in Kuala Lumpur, where I see mountains of fruit and vegetables that will not be bought today and will not keep long enough for sale another day.

The objective is not just to keep excess produce from going to waste by feeding the needy -- the project also aims to help reduce environmental damage caused by overproduction and waste disposal. Food thrown into landfills releases methane, a toxic greenhouse gas, as it rots.

The Lost Food Project says that if global food waste were a country, it would be the world's third-largest greenhouse gas emitter. But the project's figures claim that it had rescued 1.6 million kg of food from landfill in Malaysia by December 2020, preventing just over 3 million kg of greenhouse gas emissions.

Statistics aside, apart from its impact on the environment, the project offers several lessons for developing Asia. One is how to feed the weakest and poorest members of developing societies, using existing resources that would be otherwise discarded. This became even more important during the coronavirus pandemic, when panic-buying and supply chain breakdowns caused scarcity in food markets.

"We had to be adaptable and agile, and find new ways to procure and distribute food to those who needed it the most," said Mooney. The crisis also gave rise to new opportunities such as sending second-grade vegetables to the local zoo.

Another important takeaway for developing Asian countries is the spotlight on addressing nutritional poverty among the poor, the elderly and the disabled. In many countries of the region, people in the lower income groups are not destitute. They have homes and can afford food -- but they tend to eat fast food, which is cheap and filling yet lacks nutrition. Even in a developed economy it can sometimes be cheaper to buy a cheeseburger than a wholesome salad.

That is perhaps where the food distributed by the Lost Food Project can make the most difference. The team says that malnourished and anemic children in charity schools that it supplies typically recover their health after a few months of eating fresh food.

But perhaps the biggest lesson from an obscure project that grew into a scheme of national significance is: Don't throw surplus food in the bin -- put it to work fighting poverty and pollution.

Charukesi Ramadurai is an Indian journalist working in Kuala Lumpur.

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