By Anand Kapoor on January 5, 2013

let-them-eat-cakePost the recent three day gastronomy summit that saw 6 Michelin and celebrity chefs curate a charity dinner, Anand Kapoor discusses the problems encountered with “food charity” in India.

If you had to associate a colour with food what would it be? Vibrant orange, raspberry red, chocolate brown ? It’s GREY! That’s the colour that sums up food charity in India. Whilst E. L. James’ book mentions 50 Shades of Grey, the reality for food charity is that there are hundreds of shades of grey. Obviously this is a colour that should never be associated with food. Food is meant to be anything but grey. It’s meant to be vibrant exciting and colourful and anything but grey.

So why am I calling it grey?Well let me give you a hypothetical example. Take a five star hotel in Delhi – it could be any hotel. The hotel is forward thinking enough to realize that it has all this excess food and it also wants to give back to the community at large. As a result, very nobly I may add, they decide to distribute excess food to the hungry and the needy. So they work in collaboration with an NGO. Out of pure goodwill they donate the excess food without any desire for publicity or praise. When it leaves the hotel it’s is in perfect condition and benefits many hungry mouths.

This arrangement works successfully for several months and then a problem occurs. The food lea-ves the hotel in perfect condition and is served to the hungry several hours later. The next day all the people who had eaten the food complain of food poisoning. The NGO contacts the hotel to inform them. Unfortunately things became nasty and the NGO sues the hotel for several crores of rupees. This brings an end to the noble mission of feeding the hungry and the social service being offered by organisations that have excess food.

The above story however is hypothetical but unfortunately situations like this do happen and there are various popular stories circulating around which have now become urban legends. Despite many of these stories being hearsay, it is not really surprising to find that restaurants and hotels are unwilling to distribute excess food for the fear of the repercussions, be they real or imaginary.

So why am I calling food charity grey? It’s simple – the lines between responsibility are so blurred that it is not clear who is responsible and who is not and the fact that no-one wants to take that responsibility is symptomatic of our society today. Everyone wants to pass the blame so that no one is at fault. The hotel is sending food out of goodwill, the NGO is distributing it and the hungry are eating it. Surely there is someone who is responsible for the quality. The truth is that each party owes a duty of care and for anyone to sue an organisation that is doing something out of goodwill and in good faith is morally questionable. However the argument remains that has it been done responsibly?

This however does not take away from the fact that considerable amounts of perfectly edible food are thrown away on a daily basis and the arguments that justify why this food cannot be distributed to the hungry are fairly flimsy, particularly when you consider that with some proper organisation and some accountability, there is no need for the colour grey.

Many hotels attempt to placate their inner conscience by supporting villages and cooking special dinners for the underprivileged during key festivals and they do this without fuss or any desire for media attention. This is wonderful but again merely a drop in the ocean.

Supermarkets regularly pass on food close to its expiry date at discounted prices in the hope of minimising losses. Whilst this makes perfect business sense, do we know what happens when the product comes to the end of its last date of selling? It’s still sold since it isn’t at the end of its last date of use. Surely this is where regulation needs to step in.

I hear you say that the food is still edible and you’re right. But it’s not saleable because a sell by date is there for a reason. If it shouldn’t be sold then what should we do with it – dispose it? Not necessarily; like in many countries abroad this food can be passed on to the hungry.

Caterers who cater to large functions often have excess food – what happens to that? It’s usually distributed to the workers who then eat in excess and any extra is simply thrown away. Smaller restaurants would be happy to contribute to a wider cause but are scared to distribute their excess food since they cannot possibly survive a legal case. The whole idea of distributing excess food in India is a minefield. There are no checks on whether the food donated is edible, and rather than donating food, restaurants would either give it to their staff or in a best case scenario, leave it neatly packed on the streets for the hungry to take – no-one wants to take responsibility!
If the excess food could be passed on through an organisation that is willing to take responsibility for the quality of the food distributed with the understanding and agreement from the restaurant that they provide edible food then why would it not make sense? Organisations like ‘Oz Harvest’ in Australia and ‘Food Cycle’ in the UK have set up working models that allow the excess food to be distributed. They take responsibility for what they are distributing and maintain standards. Both organisations collect excess raw ingredients from restaurants, prepare healthy nutritious food and distribute it to the homeless and hungry. Surely in a country like India where there are several thousands of people who remain hungry, this is a valuable and important model that could be followed.
So what happens to that excess food in India? Unfortunately, the food literally goes to the dogs. Hotels are happier to support welfare of animals over humans who can blame them with the potential threat of a legal case on their heads. They take the excess food and mash it all together so that it becomes inedible for humans and pass it on to charities that support animals. Now don’t get me wrong. Supporting animals is wonderfully philanthropic but what about humans? I don’t want to get into a debate here on animals against humans but it does raise the question on how much we truly value human life. Have we just become desensitised to human needs in India or do we feel that the best way of donating food is to give it to temples whereby we also earn our place in heaven! The whole thing is extremely circumspect and very questionable and thus deserves a deeper discussion than the realms of this article.
Alternatively if the food is not mashed up and given to the dogs the restaurants are happier to sell the food to diners at discounted rates or they recycle it to their staff rather than feeding the hungry. It seems that capitalism has taken over the food industry and the democratic socialist ideology has been side-lined.

It is important to note here that restaurants are happy to distribute bakery products due to their longer shelf life but isn’t that venturing into the realms of Marie Antoinette – “Let them eat Cake!” It doesn’t really solve the issue of excess food and man cannot live on bread alone – both spiritually and physically. So what’s the solution?

It was suggested to me whilst researching on this article that a committee of stand-alone restau-rateurs, hoteliers and caterers could be put in place per area to ensure that they would monitor the quality of food being donated and that a central organisation such as an NGO would check the quality of the food before it left the restaurant and before it was served to the hungry. Secondly, a series of refrigerated vans could be used to distribute the food and this is especially important during the summers. NGOs need to take equal responsibility – they owe a duty of care to the people they are helping and cannot palm off responsibility for bad food to the donor. By the same token the restaurants need to ensure that they are donating food that they would themselves be willing to eat – in short a team effort is needed.

Alternatively excess raw ingredients could be collected as per the international models and then prepared in a hygienic environment and distributed at that same venue – much in the manner of soup kitchens abroad. Such initiatives would turn grey food into a vibrant kaleidoscope of colours.

So in this season of goodwill to all men (and women) take a few seconds out to think about what will happen to all the excess food you are relishing at that wedding or party. It will certainly add to your soul and not your waist line by giving you some food for thought.

This article is meant to provoke thought and discussion. It is by no means written as a criticism or attack on any one person or organisation – please view it in that manner. We would love to hear your thoughts and solutions on this, so do get in touch!