“Imagine this, every 18 days, the amount of edible food that Malaysians throw could fill the Petronas Twin Towers to the brim!”
This is what Alvin Chen of What A Waste (WaW) told us, highlighting just how much good food consistently goes to waste.
Food surplus and wastage have long been major problems in Malaysia, and we’ve seen several organisations try to tackle it over the years.
One that has been doing it for about 3 years without ever having officially ‘launched’ is WaW, a social enterprise that fights food waste by immediately rescuing food surplus and passing them on to needy families.
On The Ground
WaW was started by Angela Tan, who had an interest in community projects as an architectural student and built her portfolio around old folks’ homes, recycling centres, and community halls.
After she volunteered with a local church food bank and led a ‘Hunger Relief Programme’ for an NGO, that interest grew into a passion and she gradually dedicated more time to actively serving the community.
When the demand for constant food aid increased within the community she was serving, she took the leap of faith to invest her full time into building a community-centric, social platform that focuses on food rescue missions.
Alvin later joined WaW as its co-founder, and he too had architectural design experience and was involved in a multitude of affordable housing schemes in Malaysia and other developing countries.
Together, the two co-founders reassessed WaW’s core values to position it as a community based organisation.
More Than Academically Driven
Today, WaW promotes their act of charity by structuring a ‘convenience to your doorstep’ approach where any food surplus is collected from your venue at request and prepared to be quickly passed onto the needy.
Their team of food warriors is made up of students who help pack, transport, deliver food, and engage the marginalised communities.
The reason for this is because WaW recognises that present-day students are still too traditionally motivated and mostly only strive for academic excellence.
Local educational institutes have actually begun enrolling their students in WaW’s food rescue missions, and reimburse the organisation for training them.
“This exposes them to multiple first-time experiences, from sudden shock after having step foot in a PPR flat to feeling empathy when they interact with the residents,” Alvin explained.
“They are then empowered with the skills and confidence to serve our community, which sets the right foundation to their character building.”
“A snack to some is a meal for others.”
WaW rescues both perishable and dry food, and “no food is too little to rescue because a snack to some is a meal for others”, Alvin said.
They’ve even rescued as little food as a single portion, but they’ve got understanding food donors who will accumulate their dry food items before contacting WaW for collection.
This helps keep WaW’s cause a feasible one because the logistics cost of their operations is a very high one.
Besides a portion of the platform’s running cost being fuelled by the proceeds from Angela’s eco-products business Beebox, all rescue missions and operations were fully funded by the co-founders.
After about 50 food rescue missions, the community, in return, insisted on reimbursing WaW’s logistics cost.
WaW’s cause has also gained popularity amongst couples who request for their service at their weddings, which can be huge sources of food waste.
Alvin found this to be an interesting discovery, and shared that they might ride on this branding and create an ‘add-on’ wedding package that’s monetisable in the future.
Companies who have requested for WaW’s services have also found them convenient for satisfying their CSR obligations, and some corporates have even requested for the team to accommodate their employees on reimbursable customised food rescue missions for team-building purposes.
A Race Against Time
When WaW calls what they do a food rescue mission, it’s exactly that.
Building up to the day of a mission, WaW informs needy families to be on standby mode to receive the rescued food, and their food warriors are then briefed.
On collection day itself, the team will show up towards the end of an event suited up in gloves, face masks and head caps to segregate dry and wet food.
In a race against time (and they have a timekeeper for every mission), these are neatly packed in recyclable containers which are then weighed and recorded.
Immediately, the delivery team is dispatched to send it all off to the readily available beneficiary at the nearest possible location.
WaW terms this the ‘Touch and Go’ approach as it doesn’t allow any build-up of risk for food contamination as there’s no storage process or contributing factor per se.
It’s a greener approach of rescuing food surplus too because there’s no freezing (which requires a commercial freezer or warmer) or recooking (which means double handling) required.
“The hotels that we had rescued food from are beginning to acknowledge that our approach is revolutionary because there is no longer a need for double or triple handling anymore,” Alvin said.
“And as a result, needy families get to be fed immediately (without having to wait for food to be recooked in soup kitchens) and it saves so much on utility bills.”
This is a crucial point that sets WaW apart from other organisations who rescue food surplus too, according to Alvin.
All the perishable food collected is safe for consumption because it’s usually food from an event that a donor would personally consume.
Some donors will deliberately cook in bulk as thanksgiving too and request WaW’s assistance in getting the food to the needy community.
An App In The Works
Currently in its beta testing phase is a WaW app that will act as a medium for greater outreach to more needy families.
When it’s ready, Alvin shared that it will link their qualified food recipients directly to food donors, and users can then self-collect the surplus food, relieving WaW from the task of delivery and creating a sustainable community on a nationwide scale.
Now, you may have noticed that earlier that the phrase ‘qualified food recipients’ was used.
Members of the public actually write into WaW to recommend ‘overlooked’ families in their area, and as part of their SOP, WaW pays personal visits to recommended families to qualify them as constant food recipients through their Community Feed Community (CFC) programme.
Through CFC, M40 and T20 families can ‘adopt’ an underprivileged B40 family and support them through monthly food supplies.
From the B40 communities, single parents with children, the handicapped, and families with more than 5 children are WaW’s top priority.
Phase 2 of the app will help ease event based food rescue operations by notifying the food warriors of a mission, and those closest to the point of rescue will take on the task.
“We are most certain and confident that WaW app would go on to bring about a significantly positive change to the conventional food distribution system,” Alvin said.
“Through this app, many overlooked individual families will also be kept within radar to monitor their progress and welfare.”
Progress on the app has been relatively slow due to limited funds, however, which remain a challenge for WaW.
Strength In Numbers
But an even bigger challenge is the recruitment of food donors.
“Food donors in this respect refers to large private corporations which are either restaurant chains or hoteliers,” Alvin said.
“While we understand and respect the need for their strict compliance to food safety policies, we are constantly writing in and presenting to them our methods and our approaches to ensuring zero risks of food contamination when WaW collects their donated surplus food and channel to the communities.”
Nonetheless, the thought of many overlooked families out there in hunger keep Alvin and Angela going despite the difficulties.
In the coming 2 years, WaW hopes to work with government agencies and policymakers to structure a campaign that will encourage supermarkets, hoteliers, restaurant owners, etc. to have peace of mind when donating their surplus.
“As we progress, we really hope to gain the attention of oil companies to support us, in kind of petrol cards and Touch ‘n Go cards as these would significantly assist us,” Alvin added.
WaW’s core team will also set up a satellite base in as many states as possible to replicate this movement to serve the local communities.
“We are already speaking to like minded individuals from different states and have moved to train some of them to represent WaW and reach out to their communities,” Alvin said.
Once they get sufficient funding, they’ll be able to expedite the progress of the WaW app to assist in their operations to service the entire nation.