The Food Aid Foundation with the help of student volunteers not only prepares cooked meals, but works with manufacturers, wholesalers and bakeries to ‘rescue’ surplus food and redirects them to the less fortunate.
CUTTING, cleaning and cooking may seem like Mum’s job in the kitchen but a group of young volunteers are doing just that. In fact, they are also involved in packing the cooked food and distributing them to the underprivileged in the Klang Valley.
These are but some of the tasks dished out to the youngsters who help the Food Aid Foundation, a food bank based in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur. The food is cooked in a central kitchen with the help of the volunteers, then packed and sent to the homeless and charity homes.
“We spent about five to six hours a week over the last few months to help in the cooking and packing of the food at the foundation’s kitchen,” said Zarif Zamzuri, a Culinary Arts student.
“There were five students in the group, with a chef leading the team during our stint which ended recently. We’d come in, find out what the day’s menu was and then delegate the tasks among ourselves. The menu was usually rice with one vegetable and one protein dish, plus some gravy,” added the 20-year-old from Taylor’s University School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts (TCHT).
His group member Amira Saifuddin said the challenge was in familiarising and adapting to the kitchen and its limited space.
“The kitchen was small but well-equipped, but we got used to it and it was an enjoyable experience.”
There was a limited budget for the team, but they managed well as the dishes they prepared were “pretty basic but nutritious” with local ingredients that were easily availabe, said the 19-year-old.
Fellow student Irwan Muhamad said what he learnt so far at TCHT was about French cuisine which was totally different from what they cooked as kitchen volunteers.
Acknowledging the vast experience they had gained at the foundation’s kitchen, he said their stint at the foundation’s kitchen had helped in honing their techniques such as filleting fish.
Zarif said they were among the students handpicked by chef Bala Murali, their lecturer, who also cooked and helped out in the foundation’s kitchen.
“We were told that this would be strictly voluntary, but it was a great experience in terms of cooking in the foundation’s kitchen,” he said.
Having interned at hotels before meant that it wasn’t their first time working in a commercial environment, but Amira was quick to point out that their stint at the foundation’s kitchen was less stressful and more fun. She shared that the working environment in a hotel was much more hectic and intense.
“At the foundation’s kitchen, we were happy to work with like-minded individuals since we knew that our efforts were going towards feeding the less fortunate.
“Also, we learnt to be more compassionate and didn’t mind the extra hours as it was for a good cause,” said Amira, who hopes to open her own patisserie one day.
Zarif, who plans to gain work experience upon graduating, shared that volunteering at Food Aid Foundation had taught them to appreciate what they had and to not waste food.
“We are humbled by what we see. Also we feel somewhat guilty when we realise that while we can afford to have a decent meal, there are others struggling to put food on the table,” said Zarif . Pastry chef aspirant Irwan shared his sentiments.
Food Aid Foundation also welcomes students from foreign universities, and not necessarily those with culinary arts training.
Seher Nihal Cam and Ngo Thi Thu Hong both found out about the foundation through Aiesec, a student organisation that organises volunteering and internship programmes all over the world.
“The foundation’s cause resonates with what I believe in – that the way to break the vicious circle of poverty is to provide people in need with the very basics, such as food and clothes.
“Beyond that, the foundation brings cheer to people and gives them hope for a better life,” said Seher, who hails from Augsburg, Germany.
Vietnamese student Thi Thu Hong joked that she joined Food Aid Foundation because she enjoyed eating and wanted a job related to food.
“My internship lasted for three months and it turned out to be an amazing experience!” she shared.
Seher, 23, said their volunteer work was very diverse.
“In our first week we went to Kelantan to support the flood relief efforts there,” she said.
“We then supported different corporate social responsibility campaigns with various companies in Kuala Lumpur and also helped with the foundation’s administrative work.”
Thi Thu Hong said their other duties included visiting and distributing food to welfare homes, assisting with the foundation’s research work and co-ordinating and managing all aspects of charity events.
Seher, who was about to graduate with a degree in Global Business Management when she did her volunteer stint, is now pursuing a second degree in Business Mathematics at the University of Augsburg, said she volunteered to contribute to society and for personal growth.
“Even though I had volunteered before (as a tutor to underprivileged children, and at a social store that provides food and clothes to the needy, among others), the experience with Food Aid Foundation has given me an insight into the workings and functions of another organisation.
“Since the tasks were very diverse, I learnt a lot about the different skills necessary for social work. It included organisational work and implementation of plans for social events.
“Communication was sometimes challenging, but it was an amazing experience and cultural exchange, all of which are important to me,” she said.
Thi Thu Hong said volunteering at the foundation gave her the chance to apply what she had learnt while studying for a Business Administration degree at the Hanoi Foreign Trade University in Vietnam.
“I also received a lot of business advice from Rick (Chee), the organisation’s founder. He took the time to chat, offered us business tips and lessons. He was like a father figure to me.
“I also learnt a lot from my roommate, Seher, who shared her experience and advised me,” said the 23-year-old who travelled alone for the first time.
“I found it difficult to express certain things in English, so I sometimes ended up saying things that I didn’t mean to say.
“But it gave me the chance to know more about the local culture and people. I also love the Malaysian lifestyle,” said Thi Thu Hong.
Seher said her experience at the foundation taught her to think of how she could help people in need, in the best way possible.
“It opened my eyes and made me look at the needs of underprivileged communities. It also made me more sensitive towards social inequalities,” she said.
Thi Thu Hong was quick to recommend that students volunteer at the foundation.
“Here you are free to be creative, learn from mistakes, travel to interesting places, nurture kindness, run real projects, and stop hunger.
“For international students, it’s a good place to gain a multicultural experience, enjoy different types of food and make great local friends,” she said, adding that she has also gained some cooking skills.
Building a bridge
Connecting the world of waste with the world of wants – that is the idea behind the foundation that also collects perishable and non-perishable food, such as vegetables, bread and canned items. They are then distributed to the underprivileged.
The raw food is cooked in its central kitchen then packed as hot meals.
Even donated bread that was close to the expiry date, was put to good use as they are baked again with chocolate spread.
The foundation’s founder Rick Chee said collected food that wasn’t considered fresh by commercial standards, but which hadn’t lost its value, was still cooked and consumed.
They included food that was close to expiring, had dented or damaged packaging, or was sold as a discontinued or promotional item.
Such items were from food outlets, wet markets, manufacturers, importers, bakeries and wholesalers.
They were collected, sorted and distributed to orphanages, old folks’ homes, poor families, soup kitchens and to relief sites where people affected by various catastrophes and emergencies were in need of such items.
“It’s about building a bridge between the haves and have-nots,” said Chee, “of the organisation that he started with a group of like-minded professionals two years ago.
Chee should know better. He grew up in a large family with 14 siblings, where a meal could be just a plate of rice with sliced cucumber and sambal. “I know what it’s like to not have enough,” he added.
“I’ve been in the food and beverage industry for over 20 years, during which I saw a lot of food being wasted.
“Food that could no longer be sold at stores or were considered old stock were thrown away, when they were still edible. That was what inspired me to start the Food Aid Foundation,” he said.
Chee tapped into his experience in building commercial kitchens and worked with the foundation’s advisory council that included F&B experts to establish the foundation and its operations centre.
“It took nearly six months to set up the kitchen, get the marketing materials and have the operations running smoothly,” he said.
“We also worked out a way to indemnify donors should something untoward happen to the food they donated. There is presently no Good Samaritan Law to protect donors from being sued for giving expired food.”
Chee said the Food Aid Foundation’s centre was built with expansion in mind. He hoped its operations could be used as a model to be replicated in other states so that it could reach out to more people in Malaysia.
“When we roll out full swing into food production, I hope that the foundation can achieve the HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) and GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) food safety standards,” he said.
“The foundation uses the corporate way of running charity, which is by building trust and credibility and ensuring sustainability.
“We’re mindful of people’s generosity and careful with contributions given by them.
“We make the effort to educate people on our mission and what we do. And we’ve built up a network of suppliers who contribute the food to us. Our problem now is the limited storage capacity that we have, so we have to coordinate our deliveries carefully.”
Besides sending food supplies and cooked meals to some 30 homes in the Klang Valley, Chee said the foundation also helps feed the homeless and people in crisis, such as the victims of last year’s Kelantan floods.
“We have a pool of volunteers to help with the distribution and culinary arts students to help with the cooking,” said Chee, who is an industry advisory panel member at TCHT.
“We’ve also welcomed foreign university students, who come here to learn about the foundation’s operations, and have helped with the cooking, cleaning and food distribution work.”
The father of three said that today’s youth need to have more compassion and empathy to those who were less fortunate, and welcomed their contribution as he believed that volunteering helped them become better people as they moved up in their careers.
The collaboration between Food Aid Foundation and TCHT provides another facet to the students’ education through participation in community-driven activities.
TCHT deputy dean for the school of culinary arts Siti R Ismail said: “It is something that fills us with pride and we are honoured that Chee has provided us the opportunity to collaborate.
“As educators, we need to inculcate a sense of volunteerism in our students and show them how to ‘pay it forward’. It is not leaving a better planet for our youth but leaving better youth for our planet that drives us to be involved in CSR efforts with bodies like the foundation,” she said.
On how the collaboration came about, Siti explained that it was an extension of TCHT’s strong relationship with Chee.
“In addition to being a TCHT culinary industry advisory panel member and playing an important role in ensuring that our curriculum will allow students to be industry-ready on graduation, Chee is also an adjunct lecturer for our Master of Philosophy (Food Studies) postgraduate degree.
“We have also volunteered in a number of events organised by the Food Aid Foundation,” she said.
“These include the Kelantan flood relief efforts and the FedEx Care Week last year, which saw our students teaching FedEx staff the basics of cooking a fine dining meal and setting the table correctly.
“We also participate in cooking for the needy and various homes that the foundation organises.”
Siti feels that the student volunteers who take part in such voluntary efforts have the desire to help others.
“Through this, it is hoped that they have a greater understanding of how the world is and that everyone, regardless of creed, race or religion, deserves the right to live. If they can help, they should try their best to do so,” she said.
“We do have students in mind when opportunities like this come about, but at the end of the day, we leave the decision to the students.
“From a culinary standpoint, though, it is a great learning opportunity as the students get to pick up recipes and learn how to cook a healthy and wholesome menu.”
Siti added that the Food Aid Foundation should be lauded for their effort in bringing hope to people who are in need of it.