Doubly unethical dilemma

* A bun can get disqualified just because a
sesame seed is in the wrong place

* Food waste


By Sajitha Prematunge

Each year more than 30 percent of the world’s food production, weighing about three billion tonnes, is wasted, while 13.1 percent of the world population (6.8 billion) go hungry. According to UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimates, the waste is enough to feed three billion people.

An outfit called The Robin Hood Army is doing its bit to curb food waste in Sri Lanka by literally taking from the rich and giving to the poor. "We accept food that cannot be sold due to minor quality issues from hotels and restaurants and give it to the less fortunate," said Robin Hood Army, Lead Volunteer, Hanzala Abdurrahman. The Robin Hood Army was founded on August 26, 2014, by Neel Ghose and Anand Sinha and registered as a charitable trust in India. It is active in 12 countries including Sri Lanka. Hanzala explained that, due to high quality standards, often food that are perfectly edible is disposed of. A bun can get disqualified just because a sesame seed is in the wrong place.

"We get everything from bread to curry, anything they can’t sell, from six to eight hours after cooking," said Hanzala. And being the resourceful Army that they are, the Robins are adept at mixing and matching curries with rotis and breads. The meals are put in generic packages and distributed among previously identified needy. When asked how the Robins ensure the hygiene of the cooked food, Hanzala said that the restaurants and hotels are responsible for ensuring such, and through out the two years of distributing food for the needy, the Robin Hood Army has never received hygiene-related complaints.

The Robin Hood Army approaches hotels and restaurants at random, often targeting the buffet where food waste is a given norm. Their daily food drives feed up to 25 people. The major obstacle for this group of 20 active volunteers is the lack of volunteers. "Volunteers are the backbone of the operation and we could really use more. Everyone knows about the issue of food waste, but execution of any remedy for the problem is very poor. People are too lazy to get out there and find out who needs food."

Hanzala pointed out that food waste should be curbed because it was an issue that concerned both environmental degradation and poverty. Food waste aggravates the garbage problem while people are going hungry.

Environmental degradation
and poverty

Food waste occurs due to many reasons, most of which are universal. Food is wasted due to overstocking, damage due to bad handling or packaging or exceeding shelf life. Perfectly edible food is often rejected because it does not conform to quality standards at factories.

According to experts, food waste accounts for a loss of water close to 675 trillion litres. As such, reducing food waste would reduce pressure on the world’s remaining natural ecosystems. Food waste in open garbage dumps, produce methane, a greenhouse gas, considered more detrimental to the environment than carbon dioxide. According to a 2016 UNEP report, food waste is responsible for producing 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases. Fourteen percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions are caused by food waste.

Food waste is doubly immoral because, when food is wasted, it reduces supply, which causes food prices to increase. This is why food has become a luxury to nearly one billion people in the world who are living in hunger. More than three times more food is given to livestock than we get back in the form of animal-based products such as meat, milk and eggs; nearly 70 percent of calories are lost in the process.

Food waste in hotel sector

Although food waste generally occurs due to food surplus, it is hard to believe that tons of food are discarded in Sri Lanka where 8.9 percent of the populace live below the poverty line. In the hotel sector, generally food is considered waste and tons are disposed or resold as animal feed.

Waters Edge Chief Steward, Chaminda Abeyweera revealed that 300 kilos of food were discarded as waste every day on average. "On weekends it’s somewhere around 400kg." Since they have a policy that prevents them from giving away food the leftover is sold to a piggery as animal feed.

At Jetwing Hotels, the average food waste production is 35 to 80 kg, the kitchen, restaurant and bar and staff cafeteria being the main sources. Jude Kasturi Arachchi, Director, Jetwing Hotels, said that they were debarred from handing out leftover food. The food waste of Jetwing Lighthouse and Jetwing St. Andrew’s is sent to a piggery. However, many of their hotels either produce biogas or compost using their food waste.

"Under our waste to energy programme Jetwing Blue, Jetwing Sea, Jetwing Vil Uyana, Jetwing Kaduruketha and Jetwing Lake all prepare staff meals using biogas produced by food waste." Kasturi Arachchi said Jetwing Yala and Jetwing Lake adhered to a zero waste to landfill policy. It’s a modified composting system where waste is converted either manually in batches or mechanically. The output is approximately 2,500 kilos of compost per month. Pretty impressive for something that would have otherwise ended up in a garbage dump somewhere.

Foreign countries have passed effective laws to curb food waste while reducing poverty induced hunger. In 2016, France passed a law banning grocery stores from throwing away edible unsold food, imposing a fine of $ 4,500 for each infraction. On the positive side, this encourages supermarkets to donate the food stuff to charities and food banks.

Doubly unethical

"On the one hand it’s a resource while on the other it’s a waste," said Sena Peiris, former CEO of National Cleaner Production Centre. It’s environmentally detrimental as food waste end up in open dumps. And it is an almost criminal extravagance to waste food when millions are grappling with hunger.

"Unlike in many other countries, we don’t have standard portions such as small, medium, large. Consequently, there’s more waste," pointed out Peiris. He observed that food was most wasted at the buffets and banquets in hotels.

"For a function with 100 guests, we usually prepare food for 120, just to be on the safe side. But, often most of the people in the guest list don’t even turn up," said Chinthana Nuwan Prageeth, formerly of The Torch, Doha, who has had extensive experience in local as well as overseas hotels. He pointed out that functions such as weddings are another source where food waste occurs. According to Chinthana food is wasted when trainees are put into work as well. Because the quality and appearance of food are of utmost importance in the hotel industry, unless food prepared by trainees don’t conform to the prescribed standards it is discarded, even if it is perfectly edible. Even the slightest change in quality can cause most food items to be discarded. As a result fish and fruits damaged during transport is disposed of.

Speaking from experience in conducting site visits at various hotels, Peiris pointed out that the mentality of the people in the hotel sector was another major reason for food waste. "For example, food provided for the staff is often thrown away because it is tasteless. Apparently, some hotel managements feed their staff with inferior quality food while they serve customers better food."

Curbing food wastage

In an initiative titled ‘More Taste, Less Waste’, organised by Biodiversity Sri Lanka last December, over 60 professionals representing 20 organisations in the hospitality industry gathered to discuss potential mechanisms to avoid, minimise and eliminate the large-scale food waste. During the event Corporate Director Food and Beverages, Aitken Spence Hotel Managements (Pvt.) Ltd., Bjorn van der Horst said that 20 to 25 percent of food calories on the planet were wasted on an annual basis before it even hits the market. He reiterated the need for chefs, farmers, retailers and all relevant stakeholders getting together, to reduce waste at every level. Moving stock around, opting for plated service rather than buffets and creating more awareness amongst retailers as well as consumers were among some of the solutions discussed.

"The discussion focused on curbing generation of waste at the source," said Biodiversity Sri Lanka, General Manager, Harshini de Silva Pandithasekera. We are currently following up with the Chefs’ Guild with regard to actioning some of the outcomes of the event."

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