Bangkok is a city of eating out, but not all the food on offer actually reaches diners’ plates. As hotels and restaurants close for the night, they are often left with unsold food. This regularly goes straight into the trash, contributing to the United Nations Environment Program’s global statistic that we are wasting one third of all food produced.
One foundation is diverting these surplus meals to people who need them most with Bangkok’s first “Community Fridge.” Located behind the scenes at upscale community mall The Commons, in Thong-Lor, quality, fit for consumption, leftover food is donated by the complex’s vendors. From there, it’s collected and delivered to underprivileged groups around the city.
The fridge itself was donated by household appliance firm Grundig. Founder and managing director of The Commons, Vicharee Vichit-Vadakan, is happy hosting it at her space, believing the scheme to be a “great initiative which has been easy to grasp by all involved.”
Coconuts joined food rescue foundation ThaiHarvest/SOS, which runs the project, to find out how things work and who eats what’s left in the fridge. Food hygienist and donor relations coordinator Tanaporn Oi-isarnanukul climbed out of a brand new refrigerated truck, mid-morning on a Sunday, excited to see what had been donated the night before.
What’s in the fridge?
Tanaporn listed the items in the previous week’s haul: breads and pastries, fresh salads, and barbecued pork spareribs. “Concern for food safety means we cannot accept certain items,” she explains, “so no seafood, cooked rice, or coconut milk-based dishes are rescued. But we do take fresh fruit and vegetables, cold-cut and frozen meats, ham, sausages, and bakery products.”
This time, the spotlessly clean fridge contained broccoli, carrots, cucumber, and leafy salads, as well as a variety of expensive-looking breads, croissants, and pastries. Connie Estampador-Adaya, who manages the mall’s Little Pea Cafe feels good about regularly donating similar items. “The project allows us to serve only the freshest food to customers while helping hungry people around us and also the environment,” she said.
Before it was loaded into the truck, Tanaporn inspected the food to make sure it was properly packed and safe to eat. “Mostly I judge the food by appearance and smell, but occasionally I need to sample a taste,” she said. “So far, we’ve had no complaints about sickness,” the food hygienist smiled. The day’s donations certainly looked good enough to eat.
Delivering the food without delay is also important for food safety. When asked about Bangkok’s horrendous traffic, she said, “Of course, it’s a problem. The food does need to be consumed quickly, but we’ve never needed to throw any away because of spoilage in the traffic.”
ThaiHarvest/SOS collect surplus from a range of outlets around Bangkok and their single vehicle regularly contends with gridlock. They plan to purchase an extra truck to expand the program and use different, shorter, and more effective journey routes.
Together, we headed towards the city limits into Nonthaburi province, to a Christian community of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees. On arrival, Tanaporn introduced Pastor Pornchai, whose congregation gathered outside his church expectant of their weekly delivery. “Between 50 and 60 people attend church every Sunday and receive donations afterwards,” he remarked.
Pastor Pornchai explained that with no official papers or passports, the refugee community has to rely on informal day-to-day work which doesn’t provide a reliable income. Meaning that even though the food was destined for landfill, the donations are gratefully received.
Thai members of the congregation began laying out the donations and separating them into portions ready to hand out. John, one of the refugees, waited patiently in line. “I usually take the food to share with my family. I particularly like it when beef or pork arrive, but enjoy trying all the different foods,” he said.
For John, the weekly deliveries make a welcome change from his usual meals: eggs and the cheaper vegetables available at the local fresh market. He wasn’t bothered about eating food destined for the trash, but was puzzled as to why the high-end restaurants would be giving it away.
After a few words from their pastor, the congregation moved peacefully forward, selecting whatever items appealed to them. Nobody took too much and everyone received something. Soon it was all gone. The crowd drifted away with many settling in the shade of a tree out in the soi. Adults and children alike began tucking into their croissants and pastries.
Success and future plans
Since starting the scheme in December 2016, ThaiHarvest/SOS has ensured that 583 kilograms of good food has not gone to waste from The Commons. This information is fed back to the businesses on a monthly basis.
Going forward, the foundation’s main challenge relates to the variable amounts of food restaurants are able to donate. It is hard for a catering business to predict what they will be able to give each day. Some weeks, only half a kilogram of food is collected, but other times, there’s been as much as 28 kilograms of food in the fridge.
Tanaporn hopes to roll out the scheme at similar locations. “Maybe malls and food courts around Bangkok, as well as school canteens, markets, or hotels with multiple dining venues,” she suggests. More donors would mean less variability in the amounts of food to be rescued and therefore regular amounts for those receiving the sustenance.
With similar Community Fridges popping up all over the globe, from Auckland to London to Mumbai, it’s good to see Bangkok as part of this positive trend. Bangkokians are obsessed with dining out and the great number of outlets feeding this obsession makes it likely that there are plenty of meals left uneaten—just waiting to be rescued and put to good use.
If you are in the food and beverage industry and would like to find out how your business can get involved, contact ThaiHarvest/SOS at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 096-808-8008.