Ever bought a box of strawberries only to forget them in the refrigerator and throw them out a few days later because they went bad? Or discarded half a bottle of milk because you forgot to put it back in the fridge and it didn’t survive the warm temperature in the kitchen? Well, you just contributed to a global problem - food wastage.
The 2016 Food Sustainability Index showed that 196.6kgs of food was being wasted per person annually in the UAE. A YouGov survey done in May 2018 showed that 40 per cent of the UAE’s total waste came from food.
Food waste and hunger
While on one hand there are almost a billion hungry people in the world right now, on the other, one-third of the world’s food is being wasted annually. Reports by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation indicate that this is equivalent to approximately 1.3 billion tonnes of food.
The cost of wasted food
UN numbers also show that the cost of food wasted annually is almost one trillion dollars. Meanwhile, the cost of discarding food waste is approximately $410 billion [Dh1.5 trillion] annually.
Saving food during Ramadan
For many, especially in this region, Ramadan is a time of fasting and feasting. Big iftar spreads mean a large quantity of food. This increases the chance of food wastage.
The May 2018 YouGov survey found that 79 per cent of its respondents said they are more conscious of food waste during Ramadan due to food-saving activities that take place. And 68 per cent said they often take leftovers home when eating at restaurants and 83 per cent said they would, if given the opportunity, give their leftovers to the less fortunate.
Smart solution: Savour and save
An effort to reduce food wastage by New York University students also won an international hackathon earlier this year.
Wakkalni Food Savour, an app that developers said could connect grocery stores with shoppers to minimise food waste, won first place at NYU Abu Dhabi’s (NYUAD) 2019 Annual International Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab World.
Developed by students from five countries with majors including computer science, film, biology, and engineering, the app incentivises grocery stores to minimise food waste through discounting items that would otherwise be thrown away.
“The average UAE resident produces 2.7 kilograms of waste per day, both food and packaging, and it is estimated about Dh 13 billion worth of food is wasted in the UAE every year. Compared to other wastes, food waste easily ends up in landfill and produces large amounts of greenhouse gases. Regarding of both the economic loss and the negative environmental impact, we decided to target this pressing issue in the UAE,” Ray Hsu, student at New York University Abu Dhabi said.
By combining mobile phone access with a vast network of grocery shops, the app developers hope it will be a catalyst in putting an end to food waste.
“As a country with 80 per cent residents who have a smartphone, the app we developed will be user-friendly for both local residents and expatriates. We believe that the discount price could be a strong incentive for all UAE grocery shoppers to purchase excess but fresh and delicious food on time. On the other hand, instead of throwing away the excess food, grocery stores can resell it while contributing to a greater impact on our environment,” Hsu said.
She added that the app’s mission was in line with the proposal by UAE’s ministry of climate change an environment “for the hospitality sector to be saving three million meals from the bin every year by 2020”.
While the app is not available in Google and Apple stores, Wakkalni mentor, founder and CEO of Kandw technologies International Khalid Machchate said that if available it could help the UAE achieve many of its food conservation targets.
“The Wakkalni app can be a great asset to the UAE government food waste initiative, as it answers to the other side of the equation of food distribution, restaurants being the one addressed currently by the initiative. However as it stands now Wakkalni would need the full support of the food waste initiative to educate the population on its usage and encourage it, as well as facilitate its distribution to large super-markets, mini-markets and grocery stores alike,” Machchate said.
UAE Food Bank: UAE’s fight against food wastage
In 2017, the UAE stepped up its fight against food wastage by setting up the UAE Food Bank and the launch of the #ZeroFoodWaste initiative. The UAE Food Bank aims to cut food wastage and feed the needy by donating surplus from food businesses to the disadvantaged members of the society through approved charity groups.
Food Bank fridges, set up especially during Ramadan, also enable residents to join in the practice of sharing food. Earlier this week, two new fridges were launched in Ajman and Ras Al Khaimah, along with the ones already in Dubai. Food Bank fridges will be available in 10 mosques each in Ajman and Ras Al Khaimah apart from 80 fridges in Dubai.
According to Dawoud Al Hajiri, director-general of Dubai Municipality and deputy chairman of the Board of Trustees of the UAE Food Bank, through the initiative 2,645 tonnes of food was distributed in 2018, while in 2017 it was 2,142 tonnes.
The Food Bank has special programmes for Ramadan, with iftar and suhour kits also distributed within the UAE.
Apart from organisations working to tackle the issue of food wastage, there are several UAE residents as well who follow simple tips and tricks to ensure they do not contribute to the problem. Gulf News asked some UAE residents for the food saving solutions that work for them.
Calculate before buying
A major reason why people end up cooking more than required during gatherings is because they miscalculate the amount of people arriving. Hashim Guinomla, a Filipino based in Dubai recommends knowing exactly how many people are coming to a feast. “I confirm in advance how many guests are coming. If there are leftovers, I try giving it to the guests to take home with them or use them for the next meal,” the 41-year-old banker said.
I confirm in advance how many guests are coming. If there are leftovers, I try giving it to the guests to take home with them or use them for the next meal.
While it is best and ideal to get a correct estimate of the required amount of food to serve the number of people attending, it may not always be possible. Leftovers then become one of the main issues when it comes to food wastage. Dubai-based homemaker Monisha Krishna has two tips. The 44-year-old said: “For most communities, most occasions are celebrated with food! One effective tip I’ve learnt is to freeze leftovers. They can be eaten the next day. If you don’t want to keep the leftovers then neatly pack them and distribute the dishes to people around. You can even give the food away to the security staff and house help.”
If you don’t want to keep the leftovers then neatly pack them and distribute the dishes to people around. You can even give the food away to the security staff and house help.
Echoing the same, 26-years-old Sharjah resident Mustafa Hamedani said: “I try to use leftovers and incorporate them into making soups and stews. In my family, we even have a dedicated ‘leftovers night’ on which we eat food left from other days of the week.”
I try to use leftovers and incorporate them into making soups and stews. In my family, we even have a dedicated ‘leftovers night’ on which we eat food left from other days of the week.
According to Sharjah-based biology teacher Anjum Hassan, it is vital to teach children to respect food from a very young age. She said: “I’ve learnt from my mother and grandmother to reuse leftover food items at home as much as possible. For example, I use rice from the fridge and add wheat flour, chillies and onions to make some delicious Uttapam [a kind of savoury pancake with toppings, mostly consumed in South India].”
I’ve learnt from my mother and grandmother to reuse leftover food items at home as much as possible.
Don’t indulge in supermarket discounts
During the month of Ramadan, people spend time meeting friends and family, hosting iftars and also availing of the discounts at grocery stores. The chance of food wastage is slightly higher.
However, Dubai resident Zubaida Mahmoud is not fazed by supermarket offers. She said: “I do not submit to the offers. Being conscious of your household requirement will help you make that decision with ease and not succumb to deals that may look attractive in the moment.”
Mahmoud does not buy items in bulk, rather she examines the requirement at home in the first week of Ramadan. “You always have the option to go back to the store. There is no need to buy in excess. This is very important to me as this is a month of control and consciousness.”
Cook in small quantities
For the family, Mahmoud usually limits Iftar to one or two main dishes and does not cook in excess.
The 54-year-old said: “People tend to over estimate how much they can eat during iftar. This is a simple strategy we use to reduce the amount we eat at home. I usually load the table with several type of dates, dry fruits and water, which can be stored again for later. It works as this is the type of foods the body requires after a full day of fasting.”
People tend to over estimate how much they can eat during iftar. This is a simple strategy we use to reduce the amount we eat at home. I usually load the table with several type of dates, dry fruits and water, which can be stored again for later. It works as this is the type of foods the body requires after a full day of fasting.
Like Mahmoud, Lebanese national Noor Hamam prefers cooking in batches. The 33-year-old said: “We are a small family and we cook every other day. During Ramadan, we get invited to family gatherings, where it is usually a potluck iftar. With this practice, not too much food is wasted.”
Hamam does not buy groceries in bulk. If she has left over food then it is distributed to those less fortunate.
Pakistani national Mashaal Khan said: “Another main thing is to not get blinded by hunger when deciding how much to cook. Look at it on a daily basis – as long as food doesn’t go in the bin, it’s a win.”
Do not get blinded by hunger when deciding how much to cook. Look at it on a daily basis – as long as food doesn’t go in the bin, it’s a win.
The 24-year-old tax consultant added: “Use the food you made for iftar for suhoor or the next day. You can also share it with neighbours, especially during Ramadan, since it is the month of sharing.”
Do UAE residents take away leftovers?
We asked some UAE restaurants what their experience has been. According to a manager at Zaatar ‘w’ Zeit, people end up wasting food when they dine in. He said: “People order more because they think they are going to share it with friends or family, but many times they don’t order the right quantity.”
But the restaurant staff encourages people to take the leftover food home. “Our waiters usually ask customers about the leftover food and give them the option to parcel it. Approximately 80 per cent of people agree.”
Bryan Gonzales, general manager at American casual dining restaurant Chilis’ in Dubai, said that some customers do end up wasting food.
He said: “Our portions are big. The dishes are American-size so some guests are unable to finish the food. But luckily, most of the guests opt for take-away. We usually suggest the take-away option to them.”
While food wasted by the customer is discarded, the restaurant prepares food fresh, every day. “If a commodity has a longer shelf life, we prepare it and keep it in the fridge so that there is minimal wastage.”
Ricky Gervacio, the supervisor at Italian restaurant Pizzaro, said that 90 per cent of guests request for take away, if they have any leftover food.
He told Gulf News: “When people order our pizzas, it is enough for two people to share. But even if two people are dining in, they tend to order more food and can’t finish it. But in my experience, the customer usually requests for it to be packed.”
In terms of preparing food, Gervacio said that when the restaurant has a promotion, they estimate what will do better and accordingly buy extra of some items. “We will keep the extra item and if it is not used and has a long shelf life, we store it.”