In just over a year and a half, The Lost Food Project has gone from zero to hero, serving up more than 50,000 meals a month. Apart from feeding the most vulnerable and needy in society, this also means 50,000 meals are saved from the city dump.
In one charitable swoop, founder Suzanne Mooney feeds the poor and saves the environment. From the little girl who cried when she saw an emaciated baby on TV in a news report on the Ethiopian famine and asked her mother, “Can’t we just send food to them?” Mooney has done that and more, including working with the Red Crescent to send food aid during a national disaster like the recent floods in Penang.
“I was inspired by Robert Egger (founder of community kitchens DC Central and LA Kitchen in the United States). Through his actions I saw the difference that one man can make by making something happen. So many of us in life think about how to make things better. I thought it would be so great if I could do this,” said Mooney, fresh from winning the SME With The Best Social Impact at the EU-MCCI Sustainability Award 2017.
“Egger made a decision and he acted on it. Meeting him was really inspirational – and he inspired Jamie Oliver as well. ”
Mooney met Egger when she was a broadcast journalist with BBC, where she was reporting for the Today show, the British news channel’s flagship programme.
When she left London for Switzerland, she worked with the United Nations and realised how hard it is to make things happen in the world; how bureaucratic large organisations are.
“When I came to Malaysia my instinct was to work and change things. I realised that working under the auspices of the UN is a bit limiting in terms of what you can do. So why not have a go my way, be brave.”
Mooney moved to Malaysia four years ago with her husband and children. “I was doing some charity work and I saw how some people lived. What was apparent was the lack of food. Every time we asked ‘How can we help you more?’, the one answer is always food.
“I kept thinking back to Robert Egger and asking myself why I was getting my friends to donate when really there’s no need to – there’s so much wasted food in the system.”
Her group of friends – parents who bond over having kids in the same school – then formed a committee and registered it. “The beauty for us was that all the expatriate spouses were not allowed to work and among us, we have all the different expertise – lawyers, accountants, et cetera – the kind of calibre that would cost a lot to hire. We were from everywhere – Britain, India, Canada, Africa, the Middle East and the United States, and also Malaysians, of course.
“I decided to do it because I realised that the people here are kind and helpful, and as soon as you point out something that is true, people understand and that’s why I knew it would work. If you talk to anyone about food waste, they are embarrassed if they throw it away; they know it is wrong to throw away food.”
The Lost Food Project started out by just taking food from one supermarket. “We were basically loading food in the back of our cars, from the loading bay at Jason’s Food Hall (in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur) straight to the charity homes.
“Sometimes we had to bring the food home, unload and keep it safe in an air-conditioned room all night before delivery the next day. We used to joke about taking bananas to bed as we always have bananas!”
Today, TLFP collects from many more places in the Klang Valley including Village Grocer, Ben’s, Mercato, Cold Storage, and – the biggest coup – working in partnership with the KL City Hall (DBKL) to collect from the Selayang wholesale market. They are the first charity to introduce contracts with a supermarket chain with the focus to rescue surplus food.
TLFP is also a founding member of the United Nations global initiative in Malaysia, Mysavefood.
They were able to move quickly by forming a smart partnership with Britain’s FareShare who has a 30-year headstart on fighting hunger and food waste. They shared their SOP, legal documentation, and the companies they work with.
“So it was just about understanding systems and applying the knowledge – the food system for multinational companies are all the same – and from there, it is about transferring, doing the paper work, and finding a lawyer who would do all the legal work for us for free.”
Since its launch in April 2016, TLFP has grown to over 70 volunteers and two drivers on payroll, with two refrigerated food trucks and a fully serviced warehouse. While there are many soup kitchens and food-assisting charities in the Klang Valley, TLFP is unique in focusing on the logistical food redistribution operation, rather than re-processing or cooking donated foodstuffs.
They have regular donors and the ad hoc ones, and basically take everything that is safe to take – raw food like chicken and eggs, fresh food like vegetables and fruits, or manufactured foodstuff like noodles – but don’t deal with cooked food.
“What’s lovely is that the food we are giving out is nutritious. We wished we could take all our donors to every drop off so they can see how their kindness is actually being appreciated. Not all of us appreciate this enough, but kindness brings kindness. Kindness is infectious. When you find out how happy you can make someone, it makes you want to be even more kind.
“All our volunteers are the most passionate workers I have ever seen even though they are not getting any money for the work. My belief is that everyone who is working in Lost Food, and our donors, has a very positive experience that’s threefold – benefiting the environment, saving everybody money in cost to disposal companies and also government, and forming positive connections and getting to know each other.
“We are kind of operating like a business without being a business. There’s a core group of 13 who makes the big decisions. Then there’re 10 different departments with a head in charge of the different volunteers for events or fundraising, logistics, food safety, etc. We work remotely as we don’t have an office space now but a lot of interaction happens at the warehouse. We have lots and lots of WhatsApp chat groups that it’s overwhelming at times. But we are absolutely determined that this is going to be across Malaysia, hopefully in every single state.
“And I just think Malaysia is, and should be, the example in South-East Asia for this and I do think other countries will follow her lead. It’s all about like-minded people working together and getting over petty politics. The big picture is, let’s reduce waste, save money for everyone and feed people who need it. And if everyone is clear of those goals it’s actually quite easy to make it happen.”
Looking back over the past year, Mooney feels blessed. “It’s not that I have any special skills, but the stars are aligned and I have the passion, the connections and supporters.
“The main lesson I learned is that we can make a difference together – without all the volunteers, what we have today would not have been possible. I cannot begin to tell you how much I appreciate the time, love and sacrifice poured in by the volunteers coming from all walks of life and our drivers. I am so grateful everyone is able to see the good of what we are doing very quickly and because of that we are able to move mountains very fast.”