HE’S late. And just as soon as that thought flits through my mind, my mobile lights up with an unidentified number. “I can’t seem to find Naj and Belle’s,” an anxious voice tells me on the other end of the line. It’s just further along the road from where he is, but Mohd Syazwan Rahimy, general manager of The Lost Food Project is indeed lost. I can’t resist that pun when he finally arrives.
His serious face breaks into a sheepish grin. Ah, humour is not lost on this one, I think happily. We’re going to get on just fine. “I parked my car just across the road,” he ventures, pointing to his vehicle parked on a grassy nook right next to the main bustling road of Jalan Tandok.
“It should be fine,” I reply soothingly. After all, we’re seated by a large window, framing a beautiful sunny morning outside, with his car in full view. He’d still have time to sprint outside and “rescue” his car at the first hint of trouble. It’s another pun, but I can’t help myself. He grins again.
He’s familiar with the words “lost” and “rescue” of course. They’re part of what forms the ethos of the non-governmental organisation he’s heading. The Lost Food Project (TLFP) rescues quality, nutritious food that would otherwise end up in the landfill, and redistributes this food and other essential items to those who need it most, regardless of religion, gender, age, disability or ethnic group.
According to the World Bank’s Malaysia Economic Monitor — Making Ends Meet report released on Dec 9, 2019 nearly three in 10 Malaysians feel that they don’t have enough money to buy food. Yet the Solid Waste Corporation reports that Malaysians generate a whopping 3,000 tonnes of food waste on a daily basis, which is enough to feed 12 million people three times a day. Food waste reportedly increases by 15 to 20 per cent during festive seasons.
Growing, manufacturing and buying more food than we need and throwing it away cost farmers, food businesses and citizens millions of Ringgit a year. It’s damaging and there are huge environmental impacts from wasted food, particularly if it ends up in landfill.
“What if we’re able to redirect surplus food that’s headed towards landfills to help feed the poor?” poses Syazwan. “It would provide much needed nutrition to the needy, while reducing waste and methane emissions. That’s where TLFP comes in.”
THE LOST FOOD PROJECT
Food rescue is the process of salvaging and redirecting good surplus food, and really giving it a new lease of life so that it can fulfil its intended purpose: to be eaten by people. There are two important words here that describe this rescued food: good and surplus.
Food rescue isn’t about giving people food that is spoiled — it’s about giving people good, nutritious food that would otherwise be thrown out. Hence, surplus.
When former BBC journalist Suzanne Mooney moved to Malaysia, she soon discovered that most supermarkets and manufacturers she met with were needlessly sending good food to the landfill.
“Meanwhile,” she says, “charities were buying food, or asking people to sponsor feeding programmes.” The idea of implementing a “rescue” initiative for surplus food was inspired by many similar food banks run in Europe.
The Lost Food Project team was formed in October 2015, established by the Parents International Welfare Association of Kuala Lumpur (PINK) comprising a group of 10 friends including Mooney.
While Syazwan is fairly new at TLFP, having officially joined as the general manager last November, he tells me that he was no stranger to TLFP’s early beginnings. “I worked with Alex Phillips, Suzanne’s husband while I was the PR manager for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) many years ago,” he reveals, smiling.
It was Phillips who told him that his wife was eager to set up an initiative for food rescue. “Suzanne was already meeting people, going to the supermarkets and asking for surplus food,” recalls Syazwan. “As an expatriate, she knew it was important to localise the initiative to suit the Malaysian culture, given the fact that Malaysia was a multiracial country with religious and societal sensitivities that had to be taken into consideration. So that’s where I came in… to provide a local perspective!”
He describes his initial foray into TLFP as “... passive volunteerism” but tells me when the opportunity came for him to be part of TLFP officially, he jumped at the chance. “I’ve seen the organisation evolve since its inception in 2015, with a pilot programme with Jason’s Food Hall,” he recalls, pointing out that in the first two months of the trial, 1,800 kilogrammes of edible food were collected — roughly the equivalent of 3,000 meals!
“There were already a lot of charities serving the needy and the poor, but it was always the same concept of feeding,” he remarks. “Food banks weren’t common at that time. Of course, when Suzanne started this project, she referenced similar concepts that were successfully carried out in Europe like FareShare in the UK.”
Since its inception in 2015, TLFP’s programmes have grown to include redistributing quality surplus food from several supermarket chains and multinational food manufacturers — which would otherwise go to landfills — to PPR (People’s Housing Project) residents and approximately 50 vetted charities.
According to TLFP, in Malaysia, 99.7 per cent of children in low cost flats (PPR) live in relative poverty, whilst seven per cent live in absolute poverty, struggling to put one good meal on the table.
These children are part of the 7,500 families of a more than 45,000 population residing in low-cost flats (or PPRs). Malaysians of the lower-income B40 group in particular are exposed to the dangers of malnutrition, as their lesser household income means that they cannot always provide their families with adequate nutrition.
“Rescuing and distributing this food means our charities and PPR residents can redirect their limited resources to pay for other essentials like healthcare and education,” explains Syazwan, adding that through their programmes, TLFP hopes to make an enormous difference in Malaysia, both in terms of eliminating hunger while helping to protect our environment.
“I found the idea so simple really,” admits Syazwan. “I wondered why no one thought of it before.” Supermarkets throw away a lot of food nearing the expiry date. Most consumers, he points out, have no idea what expiration dates, sell-by dates, use-by dates, or best-by dates mean.
An initial challenge faced by TLFP was misconceptions about what constituted food waste and the quality of the surplus, but it has overcome that through awareness and education drives.
Consumers (and many sellers) wrongly assume that food is no longer good after these days. Instead, sell-by dates are guidelines for sellers to indicate peak freshness. Most foods are good long after the sell-by date.
Still, it wasn’t an insurmountable task to educate retailers here, he says, adding: “We had success stories from other parts of the world that practiced food redistribution to the less fortunate.”
For example, he shares that some countries are already trying to regulate food waste. France requires retailers to donate food that’s at risk of being thrown out but is still safe to eat. European Union lawmakers are pushing for binding targets to curb food waste by 50 per cent by 2030, echoing the United Nations development goal.
The proof that it works, he asserts, lies in the growth of TLFP over the past four years. “Suzanne began by collecting food in the trunk of her car, and redistributing what she collected to charities. Today, TLFP has three trucks, two warehouses and redistributes food to 56 charities, two PPRs and we give enough for 40,000 meals per week!” he says, pride lacing his voice.
How did TLFP grow so fast? I ask. “With a lot of support,” he replies, smiling. “Our pillar has always been our volunteers. We’re still a volunteer-based organisation with only three paid staff. Our volunteers work 9 to 5 daily.”
The volunteers handle everything from procurement, marketing and communications, legal and finance. “There’s a lot going on. A lot of organisation and hard work take place behind bringing retailers on board and connecting charities with the food,” shares Syazwan. “Are they paid anything at all?” I ask. “Not a cent!” he replies, adding enthusiastically: “Our volunteers are simply awesome!”
TLFP mobilises volunteers to gather perfectly edible produce from local retailers, and their current focus sees the distribution of food as "a catalyst for creating more cohesive communities and building community confidence and resilience," says Syazwan.
Their main haul, he shares, is from the Pasar Borong (wholesale market) Selayang where they collect unsold vegetables from vendors every Monday, Wednesday and Friday around 4pm to 5pm. On a good day for volunteers (“... but not a good day for vendors of course!” quips Syazwan, chuckling), they’d receive up to three tonnes of vegetables.
These would then be delivered to the PPR in Gombak and Lembah Pantai every Mondays and Fridays and residents would be there, ready to pick up whatever they want. On Wednesdays, the vegetables are cleaned and sorted for charities.
He tells me what several other recipients of the food redistribution have told him that, "It's like Christmas when the truck arrives, the joy of being able to prepare nutritious meals for their families at no cost."
TLFP's thinking goes beyond just delivering produce. There are different volunteer opportunities within the organisation itself besides collecting, sorting and delivering food. People can also volunteer in marketing and communications, corporate engagement, education, procurement and more.
“Yes, there are many opportunities for free labour!” he deadpans, and we both laugh. “I meant volunteering!” he says, but his eyes are twinkling behind his spectacles.
It was no surprise then to learn that the quality of voluntary staff was of great significance to the organisation's success. "We train them as volunteers, but ultimately they're an important part of our workforce," he says.
It’s an enormous credit and testament to the commitment of their team of volunteers and staff that TLFP has grown its operation from its humble beginnings to an organisation tackling some of the biggest issues of today — food poverty and environmental sustainability — and at the same time, reducing cost for both industry and the government.
“Our core value is to help reduce waste. We’ve still got a long way to go. We collect 12 tonnes of food weekly but there’s a whopping 3,000 tonnes of food being wasted daily. We’re talking about a lot of waste out there!” laments Syazwan.
The challenges are there, but he’s determined to roll up his sleeves and make a difference. The 34-year-old was involved in the political world (as policy advisor for the Selangor state government before moving on to handling public relations for Menteri Besar Selangor Incorporated, the strategic investment arm of the state of Selangor) prior to his appointment as general manager for The Lost Food Project.
“When I left my lucrative job at the AFC and moved into politics, I willingly took a huge pay cut because I thought that was a great platform to contribute positively” he recalls, adding thoughtfully: “But joining The Lost Food Project seems like coming full circle for me. I’ve witnessed its inception and I’m excited to journey with them as the need for TLFP’s services is only likely to grow over the coming years. We need more companies to get on board and do the right thing with their surplus food and work with us to help charities feed people.”
From 2015 to 2018, TLFP rescued 564,467 kilogrammes of surplus food from 12 food donors, delivered to 48 charities and 7,510 families living in public low-cost housing.
It provided a total of 1,948,224 meals to those most in need. In the process, they’ve prevented 1,110,488 kilogrammes of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere.
"Several tonnes of food that has already been rescued provide for thousands of meals served to people who cannot otherwise get a square meal. It's about providing opportunities for people to feed their families well," says Syazwan.
He pauses, before concluding: “Personally, I’m concerned about the environment and want to support the under-served communities. Furthermore, wasting isn’t a good thing. I’m Muslim, and in our holy book there’s a verse that says, ‘eat, drink — but don’t waste.’”
For further information on The Lost Food Project, go to www.thelostfoodproject.org