How can we waste food when so many go hungry?

Employees queueing up to get their food at Tata Technologies and an employee depositing a clean plate at the counter after his meal

In India, around 194 million people starved in 2014–15 as per a UN report. The number is on the rise. In a bid to turn things around, several corporate houses in Pune are now stressing on the need to minimise food wastage and have come up with innovative methods. Then, there are those who are taking from the rich and feeding the poor

By Salonee Mistry, Gargi Verma and Rashmeet Taluja

India stands out in the world for its shocking statistics on food wastage. One third of all food produced in India is wasted. We waste as much food as is consumed by the UK, and according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation’s report of 2014, 17 per cent of Indians are actually undernourished.

Be that as it may, you would not be to blame if, in the corporate sector’s multi-storeyed, air conditioned corridors you never had a thought about people who do not get even one meal a day. And it is also a high-pressure environment, where you must be able to deliver results that justify your six-figure monthly pay cheque. Caught amidst the daily whirl and extended work schedules, subscribing to charity or social causes may never cross your mind. But there are corporates who believe in giving back to society, who are aware of and are willing to take up the yoke of social responsibility, and for a start, are changing mindsets within the boundaries of their own work premises. They are resorting to innovative ways to change the attitudes of their employees towards the basic human needs of food, which we seem to take for granted in urban zones. This involves putting up signboards detailing the amounts of wasted food, suggestions to reduce the wastage, and more. Then there are posters, statistics on television screens and tabs, and mailers sent to employees, to underline and spotlight the message and endeavour to curb food wastage. The message has trickled down to the caterers who supply food to these firms, who have not only seen a striking change in terms of the food consumption, but are themselves taking measures to reduce the wastage of food.

Employees queueing up to get their food at Tata Technologies and an employee depositing a clean plate at the counter after his meal (right)

TGS visited the cafeterias of some IT companies in the city and spoke these people who are taking the lead in making people aware about how precious a commodity food is, when there are millions and even billions across the globe who are unable to get three square meals a day. It is easy to forget this in a city like Pune, where common people are now splurging on eating out, the food and catering sector is flourishing like never before, and entrepreneurs are devising high-end gourmet menus for those who have both the yen for food and are willing to pay exorbitant prices to pamper their taste buds. The ‘waste not’ initiative of these conscientious IT firms is beginning to pay dividends, and the statistics on the curbing of food wastage are heartening in more ways than one.

Besides the conscientious corporates, there are some aware and concerned people in the city, who are in the company of like-minded individuals, are thinking of constructive ways whereby the food that is wasted so uncaringly, in such gargantuan amounts, could instead be collected and transported to those who would otherwise go to bed hungry, night after night. These Samaritans collect food which would otherwise be thrown away from high-end restaurants and five star hotels, and deliver it to the hungry.

There is still a long way to go, and the curbing of food wastage in corporate set-ups, and the efforts of a handful of groups of people are the first baby steps in a scenario that, broadly speaking, concerns each one of us.

Every time someone at our table wastes food, they have to pay a fine
Aditya Joshi, the team manager of corporate planning at Tata Technologies, Hinjawadi, and his colleagues have their own rules about not wasting food. “Every time someone at our table wastes food, they have to pay a fine. It started with just Rs 20, and though not very often, the numbers of food wasters were still high back then. Now the fine has been increased to Rs 100, and in the last year we collected only Rs 700. It may not seem like a lot, but it is a start,” Joshi said. The money thus collected, is donated to an NGO that provides food to the poor.

Other company employees have devised different ways of dealing with food wastage. Like a person who wastes food has to pay for everyone’s meal the next day.

The food wastage board at Tata Technologies displaying the amount of food wasted per plate at the counter and how many people could have been fed

Yogesh Bhalerao is the canteen manager at Tata Technologies, and he is aware of the responsibility to reduce or avoid food wastage. He keeps close tabs on the amount of food that the employees waste, as well as the wastage at the counter.

“The numbers were huge when we started off. There was a lot of food wastage by the employees as well as from the counter. We then started monitoring the consumption and the numbers are decreasing. We even ensure that there is minimal wastage in the kitchen, and also make sure that the food is palatable to everyone. There is still a long way to go, but we are headed in the right direction,” Bhalerao said.

Food is wasted when people do not like what they are eating

An employee at Persistent entering her suggestion on the tab placed in the canteen for feedback on the quality of food

Persistent Systems Limited, associate general manager Arvind Indalkar said, “We ensure that the food that we serve is just like what one gets at home. This makes people believe that they are eating at home, and we never waste food cooked by our mothers. Caterers or companies need to understand that food is generally wasted when people do not like what they are eating. Getting rid of this is a great start. There is a big process and lots of work before you are able to eat a meal, beginning with the farmer and ending with the chef or waiter who serve you the food. When you waste food, you disrespect and put down the efforts of all these people. It is not just about practicing this in the boundaries of your work space, but the vision is to make it an unconscious effort, a habit.”

Persistent has set up a tab in their canteen which allows employees to rate the food and offer suggestions. This data is gathered every fortnight, after which the admin staff meet with the caterers and sort out issues if there are any. The company that serves meals to its 2100 work force, and the daily wastage of food is a mere 12 kg.

“I joined Persistent two and a half years ago. Even then the practice of putting up food wastage details on a whiteboard was in place, and I think it has had a positive impact. It makes us cautious every time we eat which is important. Everyone in the office is certainly careful in the portions to begin with, and they serve themselves the amounts of food they can finish. I think this is the ideal way of minimising wastage,’’ said Varun Parundekar, software engineer, Persistent.

So many Indians are unable to feed themselves and their families
Cybage launched their ‘Save Food Campaign’ to stop food wastage about two years ago, and over this time the wastage of food has reduced significantly. There is a signboard above the canteen counter, reminding employees not to waste food.

Food wastage details entered on the board placed right above the counter where you deposit your plates by an employee. The food is weighed everyday and fresh statistics are displayed daily

“These boards generally show the amounts of wasted food and how many hungry people it could have fed. The hope was that these numbers would strike a chord with our employees, and the good news is that they have had a great impact. We hand out badges of appreciation to those who deposit clean plates at the counter, which are an incentive to continue with the practise so that it becomes an involuntary habit,” said Elston Pimenta, head of the human resources department at Cybage.

“Wasting food is not an option in my dictionary any more. Being a part of the CSR team, I know the importance of the issue and how there is still a long way to go. We are trying to come up with more solutions and options that will give people an incentive to not waste food. So many people sleep on an empty stomach since they don’t earn enough to feed themselves and their families. Having access to surplus food, this is the least we can do,” said Mandar Pophale, CSR Executive, Cybage.

Star hotels would rather dump excess food than give it away to the poor
Star hotels in the city don’t seem to care much about food wastage. They lay out buffets every day for their high-end clients, and at dump what is leftover. Most star hotels in the city have grand buffets, believe in dumping the food than giving it away to the poor. We took a trip to most of the star properties and found their staff dumping the food once the buffet was over.

When TGS confronted them, management of most hotels were tight lipped about the food wastage. Off the record they told us that it is their policy to dump as they do not want complications involved with giving away food. A common answer was that if a person to whom the excess food has been given away for free falls sick after eating, then their brand would get a bad name.

The big names like the JW Marriot, Taj Vivanta, Westin and Conrad refused to respond when team TGS asked them about the excess food made daily citing administrative reasons and stands, many others said that they do not prepare excess.

There were, however, a few who have found a way across the narrow path of food wastage, or so they claim. One of them is Courtyard by Marriot, Pune city centre located in Camp. The chef over there, Mihir Kane believes in using everything to its extent, with recycling being the prime concern. He says, “In the kitchen, our aim is to make the best possible use of the entire vegetable; once the main parts are used for cooking, the roots and stems of vegetables make an excellent stock and also once thoroughly cleaned, these parts can be used in making pastes and marinades too due to their strong flavours. What’s more, the skin of few vegetables makes excellent manure for our in-house potted plants.”

Talking about the cooked food that once made can’t be used for much, he says, “We try and minimise food wastage by cooking quantities based on the occupancy level at the hotel.” However, the hotel policy doesn’t allow them to give away the food to the needy. He explains, “If the food is taken out of the hotel, we do not have control over all external factors such as weather, storage, transportation of the food which can lead to contamination by harmful bacteria. Hence, we dispose of the leftover food rather than giving it away and risking contamination.” How exactly do they dispose it off is not explained, but anyone can make a guess. The food, mixed with trash is generally dumped, said a hotel staff requesting anonymity.

Another restaurant that claims to minimise food wastage is Double Tree by Hilton located in Chinchwad. According to their chef Japvir Vohra, they feed their staff from the food left over from the buffet dinners. “We try to waste as little food as possible by cooking in batches. Wastage is also controlled by proper storage and transportation of food. What we have left over from the buffet in the coffee shop is fed to our team to minimise what goes in the bin,” he said.

Leftovers from the lavish wedding reception could have fed 5000 hungry people 
Ankit Kawatra, the founder of Feeding India, happened to attend a grand wedding, with 10,000 invitees, and where more than 35 varieties of cuisines were offered. It set off a train of thought, and Kawatra was curious about how the excess food would be dealt with. He lingered on till the end of the reception, and then to his dismay saw loads of leftover food dumped into garbage bins. The leftovers could have fed 5000 hungry people, he thought. That was the moment Kawatra was stuck with the notion to do something about such conspicuous waste of food, in a country like India. He quit his cushy job and a promising MNC career, to set up Feeding India.

A Feeding India volunteer with the children after they have had a meal

“What is food wastage for one is food security for another. Feeding India focuses on providing food to children, women, the handicapped and the elderly. We have partnered with shelter homes and donation centres which cater to such people. We also track their nutrition levels to check how far they have come from malnutrition to a healthy state,” Kawatra said.

Feeding India is raising money for India’s first refrigerated food truck in Pune. The ‘Magic Truck’ will run 24×7, and serve 2000 meals a day, 365 days a year. In the last year, more than 1000 student volunteers have joined Feeding India, serving meals to 6,00,000 people, across 23 cities in India.

During a festive season, they have delivered 300 kg of food to the hungry
The non governmental organisation (NGO) Beyond Self is the brainchild of Madhu Thakur, Mahesh Mulchandani, Sainath Shetty, Dhiraj Chhabria, and Tanvi Saxena. They too were motivated to launch their endeavour by the obscene wastage of food at lavish wedding receptions. Beyond Self has been extended supported by the alumni of Maharashtra State Institute of Hotel Management and Catering Technology, Panchsheel Foundation and Bindra’s Hospitality Services. Their aim is to mobilise, harness and empowering children, youth, women and people at large to combat hunger and poverty. There are huge amounts of excess food that is generally thrown away at lavish weddings and large gatherings. Beyond Self volunteers collect such food that would otherwise go into the garbage bin, and deliver it to the hungry and needy people, such as the residents of slums. They are also connected with caterers, who inform them about excess food, and during a festive season, they have been able to deliver 300 kg of food to the people who need it the most.

Taking from the rich to give to the poor

A RHA voluntter serving food to the street children in Pune

Neel Ghose who handles the international operations for Zomato and Anand Sinha, CEO of PressPlay, had a simple objective in mind when they set up Robin Hood Army in Delhi in August 2014, based on Robin Hood’s notion of taking from the rich to give to the poor.

“A few weeks ago, a small boy walked up to me and asked me for food, saying that he was utterly famished. He said that his mother was a beggar and that he was dying of hunger. I gave him some food, his eyes lit up, he smiled, thanked me and ran off,” said Hena Chandan, a volunteer with the Robin Hood Army.

Such little incidents are what motivate the volunteers. The Robin Hood Army volunteers have established contact with city restaurants like Foodies at NIBM, Terttulia and High Spirits at Koregaon Park, from where they collect excess food and deliver it to the hungry, near Pune station, Koregaon Park and slum areas. RHA volunteers are known ‘didi and bhaiyya in green clothes’ by the poor children they feed.

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