UNCLE TEOH TAKES out his knife and cuts off the bottom end of the radish that has gone bad. He tears off the lettuce leaves that have browned and puts them all in a sack. He then goes through the basket of discarded produce to see what other vegetables can be salvaged.
It is 4am, and the Pulau Mutiara market – the biggest wholesale market, located along Gat Lebuh Macallum – is bustling with traders tapping away at the calculators after making a sale, as foreign workers push carts down the road yelling for people to get out of the way.
Pulau Mutiara is where local vegetable sellers come to get their hands on fresh, locally-sourced seasonal produce, and restaurant owners stock up on supplies. But you also get the occasional bargain-hunting housewives from the surrounding flats.
The outbreak of Covid-19 has left many people jobless and strapped for cash.
In spite of having grown up and living in Penang, I must admit that I did not know about the market until recently. But I’m not here to buy any vegetables today, rather I’m on a mission to try to convince market traders to give away perfectly edible but curiously-shaped vegetables that they think are not fit to sell, or which they have trouble selling before they have to be thrown away.
This idea came about after I heard first-hand from individuals of their struggles to buy daily groceries to feed their families. One thing led to another… I am now talking to Uncle Teoh, a wholesaler who has been in the business for over 40 years. His stall boasts an impressive range of vegetable produce which he classes Grades A, B and C, according to their quality and price.
“Often, we have to throw away vegetables, like these chillies here that are a little off-red in colour and are shaped funny. They are still good to cook, but nobody wants to pay for vegetables that look ‘ugly’,” he explains, plucking at the shrivelled cabbage leaves to reveal the insides that are still green. “Those that I’m unable to sell, I donate them weekly to a soup kitchen that cooks for the poor in the Rifle Range and Air Itam areas.”
At that moment, a van from a soup kitchen pulls up from around the corner and Uncle Teoh gets up to load nearly 50 bags of bitter gourd, pak choi, carrot, pumpkin, ladies finger, potato and eggplant into the van. These vegetables, which had been worth at least RM400, are now to feed poor families, who would otherwise go hungry. Unfortunately, not all vendors give away their aging vegetables the way Uncle Teoh does.
Wonky-Looking Produce Increases Food Wastage
The Lighthouse used to prepare meals for 80 people, but is now cooking for up to 150 people daily.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted or lost every year; this is especially so at the later stages of the supply chain, and mainly at the retail level.
Fruits and vegetables account for the highest amount of food thrown away, at 644 million tons (42%), followed by roots and tubers at 275 million tons (18%). However, in some parts of the world, attitudes seem to be changing when it comes to ugly-looking vegetables. These produce – either bruised, blemished, curvy, too little or too plump – are given a second chance, with the rise of start-ups that are challenging such perceptions.
Oddbox in London works closely with farmers to rescue produce that do not meet cosmetic supermarket specifications, by delivering fruit and vegetable boxes to households. For RM45, customers get a small box of a range of produce such as avocadoes, kale, sprouts, kiwi, parsnips, cherry tomatoes and mango. Beautiful recipes are included for cooking inspiration. Not to be left behind, supermarkets like Morrisons in the UK sell budget-friendly wonky vegetable boxes for RM25 each.
We Penangites can take a leaf out of these organisations’ books. From education in schools to adopting social media to condition consumers into thinking that wonky, ugly vegetables are still good for the dining table, we can ensure the reduction of food waste so that more people can be fed.
These produce – either bruised, blemished,
curvy, too little or too plump – are given a
second chance, with the rise of start-ups
that are challenging such perceptions.
Alex, a volunteer with The Lighthouse, a local charity that feeds the poor and homeless, says that the outbreak of Covid-19 has left many people jobless and strapped for cash. The Lighthouse used to prepare meals for 80 people, but is now cooking for up to 150 people daily.
“Construction workers, security guards and whole families of between six and eight people are coming to us for food. Times are hard and many families are affected,” he says, adding that people are going through market bins for vegetables that are thrown out.
“Whatever extras that you have, please don’t throw them away. Just give us your contact, we have a van, we can come pick them up.”
“Throwing leftovers in the bin… is just madness”
During my time in London, Pret, a sandwich and coffee cafe, was and still is one of my favourite businesses to support simply because they give away any unsold food to the homeless. This is a great example of a business being run with a wish to contribute to society.
Every night, as the shops close, hundreds of volunteers would arrive to collect the day’s leftover food to be delivered to hostels and charities supporting the homeless. Their strong belief in making sure that no food ends up in the bin is a wonderful example of compassion, kindness and sustainability in the F&B industry.
Moving forward, perhaps our cafes, restaurants and hotels can consider teaming up with charities to arrange for good unfinished food to be given away.
The poor and the homeless queueing up to get food and biscuits from The Lighthouse.
In Malaysia we have The Lost Food Project, a non-profit organisation that is dedicated to rescuing quality, nutritious food and surplus goods from supermarkets and manufacturers. This is a brilliant initiative, and we can look into emulating this model from the ground up in local areas. There must be less red tape in collecting donated food, a heightened awareness of food waste, and a sense of wanting to help our local community.
The opportunity came when I managed to connect with a friend who works for a huge departmental store that also sells food products. She mentioned that their food was nearing the sell-by date; this is meant to indicate to retailers when they should rotate products off the shelves. Within a fortnight, over phone conversations and the drafting of an indemnity letter, approximately 1,000 jam biscuits, chocolate cookies and snacks were collected and donated to The Lighthouse.
The people who queued up for food that day were pleasantly surprised to receive the goodies, many of whom had only ever had a simple tea biscuit. The process with this store has been established, and this was only possible because there was freedom and trust between both parties, just as there is a shared connection of not wanting to waste perfectly good food between Uncle Teoh and myself.
It takes just one person to make a difference, but if there are enough Uncle Teohs out there, there is no reason we cannot collect wonky, flawed produce to be given away or sold cheaply, and in the process create a string of opportunities to help the needy.
Kristina Khoo-Rhodes is a former journalist with an interest in new media and social justice. A university lecturer by profession, she is happily married to her English husband, and is always planning for their next spine-chilling adventure. She does not take life too seriously, and occasionally daydreams about living the van life.