Food waste and hunger can be the flip sides of the same coin, and an enterprising effort in Thailand is helping address both.
Volunteers and staff with the non-profit Scholars of Sustenance (SOS) run Rescue Kitchen, a programme that collects surplus food from markets, hotels and manufacturer warehouses and provides meals to low-income and needy families.
Rescue Kitchen helps feed hundreds of hungry children, the working poor, people who are elderly or have disabilities and others. The meals are cooked at 28 community kitchens spread across four Thai cities — Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and Hua Hin.
“Not every household has a kitchen,” said Natcha Sukritsatanon, programme coordinator at SOS, a United Nations Global Compact participant. “So we came up with this programme, Rescue Kitchen, where we take the ingredients, and we can decide what we can make from those ingredients.
“We try to pick what they love. We try to pick the menu with the spicy flavour they like,” she said. They make sure the meals are nutritious and solicit feedback on the menu choices to adapt to people’s preferences, she added.
The food might be chicken or pork or fresh vegetables that have gone unused or are nearing the expiration date, she said.
“Normally, they’re going to throw it out,” she said.
Working closely with SOS is Lotus’s, a retail store chain and subsidiary of C.P. Group, and another subsidiary, Charoen Pokphand Foods. All are participants of the UN Global Compact.
Lotus’s wants to achieve zero food waste to landfill by 2030, an effort aligned with SDG Target 12.2, that calls for the “sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources,” the company said.
In 2018, the year after Lotus’s started donating to SOS, about 10,000 tonnes of its food still went to waste, said Puntarika Susuntitapong, Head of Sustainability and Corporate Communications at Lotus’s.
“This year, we’ve been able to reduce our waste to about 7,000 tonnes, which is a significant decrease and nevertheless an unacceptable amount of food that goes to waste,” she said.
The edible-food donations to SOS from Lotus’s amount so far to about 2.9 million meals, she added.
The 85 communities benefiting from Rescue Kitchen are typically nestled in the labyrinthine neighbourhoods of Bangkok, such as Wat Kae in the city’s historic Nang Leong district.
There, Rescue Kitchen has served hundreds of meals, including one recent offering of hot Chinese noodle soup, egg and pork in a sweet brown sauce with taro and sago in sweet coconut milk for dessert. The dishes were made with meat donations from C.P. Freshmart, another C.P. Group subsidiary.
Local residents who help with the cooking make it a social occasion, especially the elders, or “aunties and uncles,” said Sukritsatanon.
“They are retired, so they have the time and they want to help,” she said. “Coming here, they talk with each other. It helps them be less lonely.”
Some communities might have as many as 400 residents taking advantage of Rescue Kitchen, and the largest has some 1,000 people in the programme, organizers said. Collected food also goes to local preschools for young children whose families cannot always provide enough healthy food.
One challenge is predicting how much food will be available for serving, said Sukritsatanon.
“Maybe last week we could feed five communities with the ingredients to cook, but this week there are less ingredients, so we need to pick three communities to feed,” she said. “Sometimes those that don't get it are going to raise the questions about why they were left out.
“It’s hard sometimes to explain why,” she said. To address the problem, some communities not getting the fresh food in a given week might get dried foods or ready-to-eat donations instead, she said.
Another challenge is figuring out what to do with Western-style ingredients like kale or spaghetti and adapting them to the Thai palate, she added.
“They don’t know what to cook, what they can make from this kind of vegetable,” she said. “We don’t know how to use it.”
In those cases, Sukritsatanon said she will research and find recipes that use the unfamiliar ingredients.
SOS estimates it has served more than 29 million meals made from surplus foods. The NGO, which also operates in Indonesia and the Philippines, estimates that about 35 per cent of food purchased across the region ends up in landfills.
Some 5.1 million people in Thailand face moderate or severe food insecurity, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO). That’s slightly more than 7 per cent of the population.
But among children, about one in eight has stunted growth due to hunger, and one in 13 suffers from wasting.
The partnership of SOS with Global Compact Network Thailand has proven invaluable in building sustainability practices in the food system, said Thanyaporn Krichtitayawuth, Executive Director of Global Compact Network Thailand.
“Together with the UN Global Compact members in the Local Network, Lotus's also is one of our food rescue champions who advocate their trust in our operation since the first several years of our inception,” Krichtitayawuth said.
Founded in 2012 in Bangkok, SOS joined the UN Global Compact in 2021. It works with other UN Global Compact participants, such as Starbucks Coffee Co., collecting unsold food from participating Starbucks stores in Bangkok, Hua Hin, Chiang Mai and Phuket to deliver to communities in need.
Lotus’s, which has some 2,600 supermarkets and hypermarkets in Thailand, would like to see the Rescue Kitchen programme expand throughout the country.
“It currently only operates in four provinces out of 77, so we have 73 provinces that are not covered by SOS,” Susuntitapong said. “We have 2,600 stores ready to donate surplus, but we have no strategic partners that are as capable and as strong as SOS to help us.”
Lotus’s also is soliciting participation from fast-food restaurants that share their market spaces, she said.
“The potential is huge because these companies also have outlets nationwide,” she said. “That’s our ambition for the future.”