BEIRUT: After reading a news report that trillions of dollars were wasted on food last year, Lamia El-Sayed decided to do something about it – one family at a time.
“I wanted to do something immediately, so I created a ‘cause page’ and group on Facebook,” the Beirut-based graphic designer says. “I want people to think more about the food they throw away.”
According to a 2011 study by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, 40 percent of food losses in industrialized countries occur at the retail and consumer levels (220 million tons) – almost as high as the total net food production in Sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons). A 2010 study by the Sustainable Restaurant Association found that 600,000 tons of food are wasted every year at U.K. restaurants alone.
Sayed’s Facebook groups, regularly sharing information about food waste, quickly attracted hundreds of members who were also outraged that millions of tons and trillions of dollars of perfectly good food is thrown away every year. The new initiative, Save the Grace, aims to both raise awareness of the problem as well as distribute extra restaurant food to needy families in Lebanon.
So far, her team of 10 has found around five local restaurants, bakeries, shops and even some individual families willing to donate their extra food to 25 families in Shatila who need the help. But they’re hoping that with more publicity they can expand throughout Beirut and the rest of Lebanon – such as impoverished parts of the south as well as the Tripoli area, hosting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees with limited resources.
The timing of the start of the program, shortly before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, was coincidental but fortuitous, organizers of Save the Grace say.
Soha Itani, an administrator of the Facebook group, says that it is a good time of year to raise awareness about food waste – not just because of the tradition of generosity during this period. She has noticed that for Ramadan many restaurants offer large set meals, much of which isn’t eaten.
For this reason, the group is also encouraging customers to bring home food they haven’t finished at restaurants that would otherwise be discarded.
“Don’t be ashamed to ask you waiter for a bag to take home your leftovers,” she says, acknowledging that it is still relatively uncommon to do so in Lebanon.
In fact, on Facebook, members proudly share their experiences of saving their leftover food instead of letting it go to waste.
Some post pictures of their take-away box, saying, “I saved the grace.”
One meme posted by a member shows a picture of a young, poor African boy asking a Lebanese woman, “So you’re telling me that in Lebanon the more food you leave at a restaurant the higher your social status?”
The irony appears to be resonating with many people who are similarly outraged when the amount of wastefulness is brought to their attention.
“It really angers me,” says Ghadi Joudi, manager at Secrets, a bakery in Koreitem, which is supplying cakes and pastries to Save the Grace during Ramadan. “Unfortunately a lot of food is going to waste. Whatever we do, it’s not enough.”
Joudi typically gives year-round to orphanages and schools, but she switched to Save the Grace for Ramadan because those children are already getting other donations this time of year.
She also says she chose to work with the initiative because she felt confident the donated food would indeed reach needy families, noting that in the past she sent goods for donations and later learned that in the end it had gone to the driver or an administrator, instead of the intended children.
“When I met Tarek [Baalbaki, who distributes food for Save the Grace], I felt confident needy people would benefit,” she says.
Still, even though she is happy to see people caught up in the spirit of generosity during Ramadan, she is dismayed that it doesn’t always exist throughout the rest of the year.
“It’s the month of giving for sure,” she says. “But we should be giving all year long. It’s a pity it’s not happening other times of the year.”