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Stop food waste.

Leftover food thrown out with garbage is a common practice. Look into any trash bin in any neighbourhood at any time of the day and you're more likely than not to find food thrown away. The most obvious problem with this wastage is that while people are throwing away food, there are others who are going hungry. To meet this gap, volunteer groups in the city do their bit so leftover food doesn't go to waste but to feed hungry mouths inste

Troubled by the amount of food that goes to waste every day, Haitham al Riyami and his group of volunteers Hand-in-Hand - mostly students of Sultan Qaboos University - initiated a project to collect leftover food from social events and distribute it among those who didn't have enough of it. The 20 year old socially-conscious youngster is concerned about avoidable practises that we see in society everyday but turn a blind eye or are just unmindful of it. "There is a lot of wasted energy among the youth these days. They can do a lot. So I seek their help to serve society. We started last year with a few students; now we are a group of 50 with 20 active members." They call their project Zaad, or leftover food, and have an understanding with a wedding hall and Narjeel Restaurant in Mawaleh to collect leftover food for distribution among the needy.

Dua'a al Shuely, a member of Hand-in-Hand and a student of economics and political science at SQU, witnessed the wastefulness especially at weddings. "While this food was going to waste, workers in some part of the city probably went to bed with no food in their bellies. I thought why not take this food to the ones who need it the most. So when Haitham approached me about starting a volunteer group, I thought it was the right opportunity," said Dua'a.

"When people visit Oman and see all this food thrown into the trash bin, that is not the image I would like them to have about my country. People tend to arrange for a lot of food during social events; they think it's better to have more than less. But this is not right. Omanis are known to be generous, but we clearly need to distinguish between generosity and squandering," she said.

With a proper understanding of the nature of their work, the volunteers at Hand-in-Hand are careful to follow correct procedures to ensure the leftover food is edible, packed and distributed safely. "If anyone falls ill after eating spoiled leftover food, we will be responsible. So we had a workshop conducted by the Ministry of Health to learn about the safety measures required to ensure food quality and packaging. It's important to know how long the food can stay, what type of food spoils fast, how to store food and all the safety standards," Haitham said. In efforts to understand better and raise effectiveness of the work they do, two members of Hand-in-Hand visited landfills around the city where they got a sense of the volume of food that goes to waste.

"Homes, restaurants, stores and schools generate huge amounts of wastage. There is such an abundance of food that we don't realise the value of it," said Adnan al Kindi, another member of Hand-in-Hand who studies at SQU. "If we can reduce the amount of food waste, just think of the amount of money this country can save."

Haitham informs of another problem arising from all the leftover food thrown away -- the threat to the environment. "When waste food breaks down in landfills, together with other organic materials these generate methane, which is a threat to the atmosphere. So what we do is take the inedible food and bury it in the ground to turn discarded food into compost that will enrich soil."

According to him, educating people about the harmful effects of food wastage is the only way to curb this practice. "We cannot collect all the leftover food in the country. We don't have the resources. If people understand the importance of not producing excess food during social and business events, it would be a start to stop this wastefulness."

The group is currently facing problems finding committed individuals who can give their time to the collection and distribution project. They had also approached a government club after witnessing large quantities of food being thrown away. "They decided not to cooperate with us on the grounds of safety standards. They have the right not to cooperate but they don't have the right to throw away food," Haitham said.

Another group of volunteers pursuing a similar programme of collection and distribution is led by Zahra al Hinai, a social worker with the Ministry of Social Development. She decided to devote her time and energy to volunteering after the devastation of Cyclone Gonu. She and her group, called The Silent Volunteers, of 50 members coordinate with community workers, hotels and wedding halls to collect excess food and distribute it among the needy.

"This type of coordination has to be arranged in advance." she said. "We can't repackage leftover food, freeze it, hold on to it and then distribute it through our mobile network to poor families the next day. We cannot just give leftover food to the poor because they need it. We have to make sure it's not spoiled as we are accountable," Zahra said.

The group also collects pitta bread from hotels and bakeries, and grinds these to use as fodder for domestic animals in Barka. "Instead of throwing away bread, it can be reused for animals. We also take the inedible rice, dry it and convert it to fodder. This way we make sure nothing is thrown away and is reused," Zahra added.

Helping such volunteer groups conduct their work are commun-ity coordinators like Juma al Shukairy, who sees an immediate need to emphasis the need to produce food in the correct quantity, not just at big social events but also at homes. "This is important to also save money," says the PDO employee. He coordinates between volunteer groups and poor families of which he maintains a list. "When I receive a call from people who have leftover food, I immediately coordinate with volunteer groups to collect the food and help them distribute it correctly among needy families." he said.

To avoid food wastage, Juma suggests families store food better, avoid buying excess food, planning meals in advance and keeping track of portion sizes. "We need to stop squandering. In addition, children should be taught not to waste food from the time that they are very young.

"Compared to when our parents were younger, I think wasteful practices have become our culture today. We don't necessar-ily look at food as a resource or a bounty; we look at it as a given and behave as if we have the right to do whatever we like with it. This is not right. We have to understand that not everyone can afford to be careless with food. The trouble of putting a meal on the table is a constant struggle for some families," Juma said.

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Publication:The Week (Muscat, Oman)
Date:Dec 11, 2014
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