Maybe you’re hosting a valima for your son. Or it’s your daughter’s wedding. Or it’s just one of large annual dinners you throw. The evening is going along well. All the guests are mingling, and there is a great vibe in the air. Suddenly, you see one of the staff people approaching. “The food’s run out, sir,” he says. And in one deft blow, the evening is dead.
When it comes to hosting, the rule of thumb is always ‘more is better than less.’ And this is not just because of the fear of food running out before the guests have had their fill, but also because large quantities of food, along with numerous choices on the table, are a sign of well-being: we are financially strong enough to offer you lot all this quantity and variety of food.
Hence, we always order more. If a total of 100 guests have been invited to a function, we will order food for 100, although a 100 per cent attendance is the stuff of fantasy. It never happens.
And so, when the evening comes to a close, the host is left with a large quantity of food. Or is he?
Naveed Javed, a medium sized caterer in Lahore, says that there are other mouths to feed at the event outside of the guests. This includes the event managers, the waiters, the guards, the light and sound crew etc. “A portion of the leftover food is spent on these people,” and the remaining goes to the host.
However, Naveed adds that people have also become penny wise. “A lot of times, for a guest list of 100, they will order food for 80, confident in the thought that at least 20 of the invitees won’t show up.”
There are rumours in the city that a large number of caterers, some of them big names, use the leftover food from one event at the next. However, this can only be done by those who have multiple events in a day at venues in close proximity to each other. Otherwise, there are additional costs involved, primarily of transportation, storage, and electricity.
Qasim Javed, from Rizq, a social enterprise working to minimise food wastage, says that a lot of leftover food is sometimes sold to “vendors down the food chain.” By that he means, dhabbas and smaller caterers.
“There is an entire side business of the resale of leftover food,” he adds.
Horrifically, there are other caterers who pick up what is known as thanda gosht: chicken that died on the way to the market. “If you go to Tollington market at 1/2am, that’s when you can buy this stuff, which sells at a much lesser rate than normal chicken.”
For caterers who are offering the use of their venue and all that it entails (the waiters, the kitchen, electricity, generator, etc.) at a cost of Rs500 per head, this sounds plausible. “Chicken costs Rs200/kg on average. I don’t understand how they can offer everything they do, in that price,” says Naveed.
And while Naveed believes that not a lot of food is going to waste, at least in Lahore, Qasim is of the opinion that it’s tough to put a figure on exactly how much or how little is. “There’s no primary data available, but we’re trying to put it together — each time we do a pickup from a marriage hall or a residence, we’re adding all that up,” he says.
Unlike Lahore, which has a limit on the number of dishes that can be served at a wedding event, the problem of food wastage in Karachi takes on another dimension, due to the sheer number of people living in the city. Zubaida is a volunteer with the Robin Hood Army’s Pakistan chapter in Karachi. She reveals that due to the lavish nature of weddings in the city, even after all the support staff have been fed, a large amount of food goes to waste on a daily basis in the wedding season. On a side note, she also says that there is immense daily food wastage at the international fast food outlets in the city. “Just from a single branch, food that could feed a 1,000 people is wasted daily,” she says. “Because of their regulations, they cannot hand out this food, so it’s discarded, and people come pick it up from the trash later.”
Still, at the recently concluded Karachi Eat Festival, the Robin Hood Army was at hand to scoop by whatever was left. And, based on the food the RHA collected, they were able to feed between 2,600 and 3,000 people.
Both Rizq and the RHA work on the same model: giving individuals and marriage halls the option of giving them their surplus food, which they then distribute to the needy.
So far, in 2017 alone, Rizq has saved nearly 25,500kgs of food, which in turn has been converted into 104,370 meals. “We find underprivileged, food-insecure communities with the help of our NGO/government partners, and establish food banks there,” he says. “We have a variety of food based interventions in the form of excess food, ration support, and daigs.” Events’ hosts are invited to book “Rizqshaw” that picks up excess food from the venues.
Rizq’s plan is to focus on one community at a time, so that “we can ensure that no family is food insecure from that zone. Once that is done, we move on to the next community.”
While the overall response to the idea of Rizq has been good, Qasim believes that “there is a lot of work to be done in terms of communicating that a service like this exists.” And while some marriage halls have put Rizq on their panel, informing them whenever there is excess food to be picked up, it’s the people hosting in homes who have embraced the idea wholeheartedly.
According to the World Bank, 60 per cent of the country’s population is still facing food scarcity, which is primarily due to limited economic access by the poorest and most vulnerable — particularly women — to an adequate and diverse diet.
Another report by the Asian Development Bank believes that Pakistan’s food insecurity problem is not a matter of production but that of governance. This adds credence to the belief that food wastage is not as big a part of the problem as may be believed. But it is a problem. And while enterprises like Rizq and RHA are playing a key role in taking food to the needy, access to food is one of the key responsibilities of any government. And clearly, the government is failing.