RICK Chee knows what being hungry feels like. He comes from a family with 11 brothers and three sisters, and his father was a lorry driver, so Chee knows all about sharing a plate of rice with just plain sambal.
“No matter how you look at it, there was never enough for us to eat. I had to fight with my siblings those days for food. For me, it is so morally wrong to throw away food,’’ he says.
He became a businessman and has been selling commercial kitchens and equipment to hotels and restaurants for about 30 years but he has never forgotten his roots.
When he sees so much good food going to waste, especially when there are hungry and homeless people out there, Chee really feels it.
Three years ago, he set up the Food Aid Foundation (FAF) to “connect the world of waste with the world of want”.
The foundation’s aim is to collect surplus cooked halal food from hotels and restaurants, uncooked halal raw food from wholesalers and wet and dry markets, and discontinued or nearing-their-expiry-date non-perishable halal food from food manufacturers, importers and wholesalers, and distribute it all to those in need.
Over the past two-and-a-half years Chee has been dealing with the technicalities, logistics and the legal and liability issues related to food donation as well as reaching out to people in the food industry to persuade them to buy into the idea.
Last month, Hotel Bangi Putrajaya got on board for a pilot project. During their month-long Ramadan buffet, they saved all surplus food and donated it to the FAF.
The hotel’s kitchen operations manager, Chef Lee Chan Hee, says, thanks to advances in technology, hotels can cook their food days, sometimes weeks, in advance.
They store the food in bags and blast freeze it to -18°C to keep it fresh. Each bag is labelled with the name of the dish, date it was cooked and who cooked it. When required, the food is “rethermalised” – heated to temperatures above 60°C before serving.
“Using this technology, there is no contamination. The food is fresh and very safe to eat,” assures Chef Lee.
For buffets, the kitchen usually rethermalises extra food to keep on hand in case the buffet runs out; if these extra servings are not used, they are blast frozen again and then passed to the FAF.
Food treated this way and stored in accordance with food safety standards will remain good to eat for three to six months, according to the chef.
The FAF collected about 150kg of surplus food from the hotel over a 10-day period.
The food is taken to the FAF’s own commercial kitchen, which has state-of-art equipment, including a cold room and blast freezers and warmers to store, freeze, rethermalise and re-engineer donated food.
The foundation also uses insulated containers and a refrigerated truck to transport the food from the hotel back to the FAF’s kitchen, which is just a short distance away.
FAF is also careful to make sure that the food is safe when it is sent out to charities.
“I spent two-and-a-half years trying to procure food here and there and to convince all these players to part with their surplus food even without the Good Samaritan law. (Good Samaritan laws offer legal protection to people who give reasonable assistance to those in need of it.)
“People were willing to trust me because I have a pool of expertise behind me,” says Chee.
The foundation works closely with the Chefs Association of Malaysia, the Malaysian Association of Hotels, the Malaysian Food and Beverage Executive Association, and the International Food and Beverage Association. A number of experts from these associations sit on the FAF’s advisory board.
Other than the pilot project with Hotel Bangi Putrajaya, Chee has got bread manufacturers and bakeries to give him loaves of unsold bread.
“We can turn these into bread crumbs or croutons. Or we can re-engineer them into a different product.
“For example, I got a friend to support me by donating sweetened chocolate chips used for cakes. I melted them, coated the bread with it, put the bread through the toast conveyor and got it dehydrated. So we got chocolate-coated bread with the shelf life extended by another three days.
“One of the simplest thing to do is garlic bread. You put normal bread coated with garlic or garlic flavoured oil and put it in an oven.”
Chee says manufacturers and importers have also donated cookies they can no longer sell once the festive season is over.
He also received 1,800 bottles of olive oil once from an importer who wanted to stop selling that particular brand.
There are also food products nearing their expiry date that have to be removed from supermarket shelves as consumers tend not to pick up due-to-expire items.
All this, Chee says, can be given out to the needy.
Chee believes manufacturers, importers, and hotels and restaurants are quite happy to give their surplus and nearing expiry date food away for a good cause. And it benefits them too, image-wise: “I turn it into their company CSR (corporate social responsibility) project so they become my mission partners.”
So far, he says, FAF has been able to donate food to over 100 orphanages and welfare, old folks and charitable homes. It can also help out during disasters or with emergency relief like it did during the December 2014 floods in Kelantan.
“Right now, we have enough food in our kitchen to feed 3,000 people. So if there is an emergency, we can get food out quickly to rescue and relief workers on duty. We have chefs willing to come in and we have the equipment,” he says.
One thing, he says, that would really help the cause of food rescue and of minimising food waste is if Malaysia puts a Good Samaritan law in place.
He points out that the United States and most countries in Europe have the law, which can protect food donors from civil and criminal liability because they are deemed to be acting in good faith by donating food to the needy.
“That way, manufacturers, hotels and restaurants would be more willing to give their food to us without the fear that their reputation would be damaged if something goes wrong because they would be protected by the law. Then my job, too, gets easier,” he says.
He’s lucky to have Hotel Bangi Putrajaya donating to him – this probably has to do with Chee’s background in the food industry for over 30 years.
Chee finds it incredible that science and technology has grown by leaps and bounds and people have access to all sorts of gadgets but “nobody seems to be able to solve the problem of the 40% food that we are wasting”.
“We treat food as low-lying fruit that we can pluck as if we have three or four other planets that we can emigrate to. It is so selfish and morally wrong to waste so much. There has to be a better way.”