Catering with a conscienceOctober 24th, 2011 by Susan Reynard | Categories: food, hotels, industry, restaurants, social
Meals on Wheels was one of the partners in the recent Bidvest World Chefs Tour Against Hunger 2011, which was all about highlighting the problem of hunger across the country. The organisation’s Niki Moore submitted the following thought-provoking open letter to the hospitality industry:
“There’s a famous anecdote about a multi-millionaire who invited a number of high-level guests to dinner. When the rich and famous sat down at the dinner-table, however, before them was a glass of tap water and a bowl of brown rice with a few scrapings of fish. They looked askance at their host, who told them: ‘If all the food in the world was divided up equally, this is what everyone would get. For every person who sits down to a plateful of steak and vegetables, with starter and dessert, there are about a dozen people who have no food at all. In fact,’ the host went on, ‘even the glass of tap-water is a luxury for most people, who rely on streams and polluted dams for their drinking water.’
“The anecdote doesn’t continue after that, unfortunately, so we never get to know if the well-heeled guests ever ate their brown rice, or whether – point having been made – the bowls were removed and the expected banquet took place. But this little episode illustrates one of the great unfairnesses of our modern society: in a world where millions go hungry every day, there are rich (or even not-so-rich) people who throw food away.
“Oxfam has calculated that fully one-third of all food produced or gathered for human consumption goes to waste. Just think about it: from the tons of grain that are dumped in the sea because the price is too low to transport it to market; to the dead and dying fishing by-catch that is thrown back; to the past-its-sell-by-date food in the supermarket; to the food we buy and then allow to go off in the fridge; to the leftovers on the plate that get scraped into the bin. If all the wasted food in the world could be gathered up somehow and used for feeding, there would be very little hunger in the world.
“Anyone in the restaurant or catering industry is aware of the amount of waste that accompanies food preparation. There will always be waste, because the client has certain demands that the caterer must meet, and with the fickleness of taste and timing, the caterer must be prepared for all eventualities. So food must be kept in readiness, and thrown away if it is not needed.
“Is it possible, therefore, for the catering and food preparation industry to cut down on the amount of waste in their industry? Part of the problem lies in the fact that the profits in the food industry relate more to the amount of work required and not so much in the amount of food.
“So – it takes very much the same amount of work and energy to prepare a huge steak than it does to prepare a small one. The fact that three-quarters of the steak is not eaten is irrelevant. Cooking 50 pieces of fish is not very different to cooking 30 pieces of fish – and the profits are greater. So, one might think that it is not in the interests of any food-preparation business to caution their clients not to over-cater and not to waste.
“The dilemma therefore for any caterer-with-a-conscience is to find the balance between profitability and social purpose. Especially in South Africa it is hard to ignore the numbers of hungry people – 20% of our population (that’s almost one million people every day) go to bed hungry every night. If we could only find a way to harvest or gather up our wasted food and process it somehow so that it can make a small dent in this number – just think what we would achieve.
“Meals on Wheels South Africa feeds ten million people every year with a plate of nourishing, wholesome food. The roots of Meals on Wheels goes back to Britain shortly after World War Two, when it was started in order to feed elderly people whose support structures had been devastated by the war.
“There are now Meals on Wheels organisations in every country on earth, and South Africa is no exception. Meals on Wheels SA was launched in East London in 1963, and has maintained a proud tradition of caring for the elderly. Every day volunteers at over 400 service points countrywide cook and serve a nourishing hot meal. These are either delivered to homes or hospices, or served in a central dining hall.
“But South Africa’s social challenges mean that Meals on Wheels SA cannot only cater for the old and infirm. There are millions of people who cannot fend for themselves: children going to school on empty stomachs, old people going without food in order to stretch their pensions to feed their grandchildren, HIV sufferers too weak to eat properly.
“With social dislocation on such a large scale, Meals on Wheels has expanded its operation to include food security in general to anyone in need. Soup kitchens and feeding schemes in townships and rural areas are meeting some of the need. But as food prices rise and service delivery deteriorates, demand is massively outstripping supply. What a pity then, that thousands of people go hungry every day when tons of wholesome and nutritious food ends up daily on the rubbish heap.
“So – how can the catering and food preparation industry assist with this vast problem of hunger in South Africa? It might only take a little bit of imagination and some courage. Smaller portions might eliminate waste. Some lateral thinking might prevent the need for over-catering. Different styles of serving might prevent food being thrown away. Better planning might result in less waste. Co-operation with a food security agency such as Meals on Wheels might find a use for all that left-over or unused food.
“The main problem faced by the catering industry is consumer demand: people are used to huge portions, infinite variety and choice on demand – so how do we get around that? The answer is quite simple: tell your customer what you are doing. Make a note in your menu that you are serving smaller portions in order to eliminate waste so that you can donate a portion of turn-over to a feeding scheme, perhaps even reducing the variety of your menu to cut down on waste. Inform your customer that you are changing your serving process to one that creates less leftovers.
“Promise your customer that their patronage is helping with the issue of poverty because you are doing your bit to help. Work with a local Meals on Wheels branch by donating left-over food to their kitchens. Perhaps you could even ‘adopt’ your nearest branch and make it a social responsibility project for your staff and customers. Cutting down on food waste in order to feed the hungry is actually a great marketing campaign. It is truly amazing what a little bit of effort and determination can achieve.
“There are several high-profile events taking place world-wide at the moment where celebrity chefs are focussing attention on world hunger. Most of us will never be in that bracket of celebrity, but that does not mean that we don’t have to do anything. Take advantage of this wave of popular feeling and tackle hunger in your own way – not only will you be helping to make the world a better place, but you will be making your own place a better business!”
For information about Meals on Wheels branches and projects contact Niki Moore at 083 758 4483 or go to www.mow.org.za.