How No Food Waste works to redistribute surplus food to the needy in Tamil Nadu -Nahla Nainar

-The Hindu

The world sits up and takes notice when surplus food feeds the hungry, instead of ending up in the bin, say volunteers of No Food Waste

How often do we think of surplus food that has gone untouched at a wedding banquet, restaurant or office canteen. What happens to the leftovers?

Coimbatore resident G Padmanabhan and his friends Sudhakar Mohan and N Balaji began No Food Waste (NFW) in 2014 with the aim of redistributing this surplus food to the needy. Ever since, their effort — supported by a network of 12,000 volunteers in Tamil Nadu, Telengana and Kerala — has been gaining momentum.

“Like my NFW colleagues, I too have had a very personal experience of hunger. While we cannot eradicate it completely, we can at least try to save some of the perfectly edible food from being sent to the landfill,” says Padmanabhan, who won the Commonwealth Youth Award for the Asia region in March this year.

NFW targets three sectors where food wastage is common: banquets at social functions, corporate canteens and hotels. “People have become accustomed to inviting people in large numbers. And when guests fail to turn up, a lot of food goes unserved. A small marriage gathering in Coimbatore, for example, can see 30% of the meal untouched. In Chennai, we collect up to 800 plates per day in staff canteens,” he says.

A phone call to a centralised query desk in Coimbatore alerts NFW to a possible food pick-up. The city-specific NFW coordinator is asked to get his or her team of volunteers together, collect food from the donors, check it for quality, and then redistribute it in designated ‘hunger spots’ there. The actual coordination can be a logistical challenge, especially on muhurtham or auspicious days when the social functions are at a peak. In such cases, NFW directs donors to the place where they may bring their leftovers.

“It’s not just cooked food, but also pre-cut vegetables, dough and batter that get left over,” says AP Ramakrishnan, the NFW coordinator in Tiruchi. “At a recent event, we were notified of about 500 plates of cooked food but, when we went there, we also found 50 kilos of chapati dough that was going to be thrown into the trash. Luckily we were able to stop that in time.”

A GPS-enabled mobile app allows the public to get through to NFW faster. Besides this, some NFW chapters have got F&B ATMs where eateries can leave their excess food for donation in a street refrigerator. Diners can donate the F&B coupons given by the restaurant to needy people on the street.

Keeping an eye out for rancid food is another challenge. “Food items, especially vegetarian dishes that contain fresh coconut, have a tendency to go bad in the heat. So we try and distribute them within an hour of preparation because we cannot risk food poisoning. Our volunteers don’t accept anything that may endanger the health of the recipients,” says Ramakrishnan.

With the ban on single-use disposable vessels, NFW has shifted to serving food on plantain leaves. People are also allowed to bring their own containers to take food home.

A gift of food can move people to tears, he says. “Very often, in Gandhi Market, poor people who weren’t expecting a meal that day become very emotional when we give them food. Some even break into songs of praise for us.”

While a city like Tiruchi has around 150 marriage halls, the NFW team here can access only around 10-15 establishments in a day. Despite this, some 7,000-10,000 needy people in the city are able to get food through NFW per month.

Padmanabhan says that NFW is testing a new idea of zone-level food recovery based on road access and traffic. “We have divided Chennai into 15 zones, of which six are functioning perfectly. Similarly in Coimbatore, we have five zones, of which three are operational. In each zone, a team of local volunteers is put in charge of collecting and redistributing the food. NFW will roll out the same plan in the other centres soon,” he adds.

NFW has also been working closely with Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). “A new regulation has made it mandatory for hotels and caterers to register with a food recovery organisation in their city, which will make it easier for us to control wastage,” says Padmanabhan. “A lot of effort goes into producing food. At the same time, you have to work hard to make it reach the right hands.”

NFW’s work has been gaining recognition abroad as well. In 2018, Padmanabhan was invited to give a presentation at the World Food Prize organisation in Des Moine, Iowa (United States). He participated in the Hunger Summit held in London this year. The food recovery start-up has also been approached by The Global Food Banking Network based in Chicago for a possible membership.

“Hunger is a universal impulse. There are many hurdles that we have to overcome before we bring food to a needy person. But, at the end of the day, when we see the WhatsApp group of every city, which tells us how many people have been fed, it makes it worth the while,” says Padmanabhan.


The Hindu, 7 September, 2019, please click here to access

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