Growing up, one of the superstitions that our parents will impart to us is to finish our food at mealtimes or our future spouse will be unattractive. A popular variation of this is that every grain of rice left on the plate equates to one pimple on your future spouse’s face. The superstition may be an old wives’ tale, perhaps, there is a deeper lesson to it. In Malaysia, admittedly, the abundance of food and our lifelong relationship with it may have caused us to turn a blind eye to those who lived in hunger.
The difference a grain of rice would make
We are struggling to tackle the food scarcity experienced by the poor as 900,000 Malaysians were hungry in 2019, eating less than three meals a day due to concerns about affordability and lack of accessibility. Despite the food baskets provided by different organisations, it was estimated that 9.76 million Malaysians suffered from hunger during the uncertain times of the pandemic.
With the financial shortages and increasing price of produce, 53% of Malaysian B40s reduced their food intake, spent less on food consumption and much-required nutrition such as protein-packed meals and vitamin-enriched fruits and vegetables that we may have taken for granted. Their diet mostly consisted of cheap energy-rich meals that have a longer shelf life – for example instant noodles, processed foods and eggs. Faced with prolonged Movement Control Order (MCO), at least 60% are unable to purchase food for their families, a figure that has doubled from pre-pandemic times.
Stunting is commonly caused by inaccessibility to a proper diet during the crucial first few years of development. Childhood stunting will only precipitate long-term effects such as obesity. Obesity, despite its image of being a “rich kid problem” is ironically a health problem that is synonymous with poverty.
In numbers, 65.1% of adults in an urban poor community in Kuala Lumpur were found to be either overweight or obese. We are well aware that obesity is a time bomb that would lead to diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in the future.
The amount of food that is being produced in the world is shown to be sufficient to feed every man, woman and child on the planet, yet why are people still living in hunger? The answer lies partly in the amount of food that is wasted.
Data spells the severity of the food waste issue
Food waste refers to not only the waste that is produced when cooking a meal and after a meal, it also includes organic waste such as fruits and vegetables which are discarded due to slight imperfections. Records show us that on average, Malaysians throw out 38,000 tonnes of domestic waste daily and at least 4,080 tonnes consist of edible food.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) stated that we are living in a critical juncture where food insecurity is a tangible and urgent issue to be addressed. It is estimated that between 720 and 811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020.
Millions of people around the world go to bed hungry every night, and yet millions of tons of food end up in trash cans or spoiled on the way to market. We have to tackle this problem in every country in order to improve food security and to end poverty. – Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Food Bank
It is not hard to see that there could possibly be some solutions to reduce food waste or channel the unused or uneaten food to people who need it most. It is estimated that with the amount of food Malaysians waste everyday, that amount is able to feed 2.2 million people, three square meals a day in 2019.
We are allowed to feel guilty about the leftover rice and vegetables on our plate each meal, however, it is also an issue that permeates from producer to consumer. The landfills in Malaysia are filled with at least 49% of organic food waste that came from suppliers or farmers.
Fresh produce are rejected because of slight imperfections as they can’t be sold in supermarkets. The way to ensure more underserved communities are well-fed starts from the farm all the way to the consumer. If we are able to control production and salvage edible foods at source, we are one step closer to reducing the number of people living in hunger in Malaysia.
Finding a home for “lost” food
Various organisations have stepped up, including a government-run initiative to reduce the amount of food waste per day. Social enterprises and non-profit organisations such as The Lost Food Project (TLFP), What a Waste (WaW), and MAEKO tackle the issue in different ways.
The Lost Food Project aims to rescue edible food from landfills and channel them to people who need it the most. Since 2016, TLFP has managed to salvage at least 2 million kilogrammes of food equivalent to 7,000 meals.
What a Waste is a social enterprise established in 2018 that collects extra cooked food and ready-to-eat meals from various parties; such as events, households and F&B outlets and distributes it to needy beneficiaries. At the same time they gather surplus raw produce from wholesalers or manufacturers. To date, WaW has been successful in saving 1.256 million kg of food that would otherwise be wasted and served 100,000 families with good edible food. WaW also started a B40 Partner Cooks Programme that trains and employs low-income individuals to cook meals for others who are in need too.
I think there’s been a lack of respect towards food…We have got to be more responsible when we order food, when we buy food, when we cook food. Let’s not overdo it, let’s do it in moderation. – Alvin Chen, co-founder of What a Waste (WAW) Project
MAEKO, on the other hand,utilises cutting edge compost machines turning any organic waste into fertiliser in 24 hours, at least 7 million kilogrammes of food waste have been converted into usable compost. MAEKO also collaborated with the Sustainable Development Department of Sunway Group and installed a compost machine in Sunway City to reduce the amount of leftovers from their 34 F&B (food and beverage) partners.
The government, with the establishment of Yayasan Food Bank Malaysia under the Ministry of Domestic Trade And Consumers Affairs in 2019 have worked with non-governmental organisations and supermarkets in a mission to collect surplus unsold food and redistribute it to those who are residing in People’s Housing Project (PPR) flats, welfare homes and those that are homeless. In 2020, the organisation was able to retrieve more than 1,000 kilogrammes of food per day from hotels, supermarkets, wholesale markets and food-producing factories in the Klang Valley and at least 622,726 households benefited from the saved food. What’s more, during MCO, dry foodstuff and edible items which are nearing their expiry dates were collected and given to 77,251 university students who were stranded on campus.
A better relationship with food
Despite the initiatives by various organisations, perhaps, it is time for us to revise our relationship with food and to avoid purchasing at an exorbitant rate as one of the causes of food waste in industrialised countries is the over-purchasing of food. It has been cited that food wastage is often the result of excessive purchases, improper food storage, overpreparation of food and being overly fussy with food. Some had indicated that it is our gluttonous culture and it is important for individuals to be educated in healthy consumption and how much is enough.
The food culture in Malaysia is that we are a bit gluttonous in terms of the amount of food that we eat. It’s just the way we approach food. So, I think it’s best to know proportions to be healthier. – Mohd Syazwan, The Lost Food Project General Manager 
As much as we appreciate the diversity of food, it is also crucial for us to think twice the next time we are standing at the buffet line whether the amount of food on our plate is too much or just right. Maybe, we should consider our parents’ advice of finishing the food on our plate a bit more seriously.
Explore our sources:
- FAO. (2019). Number of people undernourished (millions) (3-year average). Link.
- UNICEF. (2020). Addressing Malaysia’s nutrition crisis post -COVID 19. Time for nutrition-focused social protection. Link
- Institute for Public Health (IPH), National Institutes of Health, Ministry of Health Malaysia. 2020. National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2019: Vol. I: NCDs – Non-Communicable Diseases: Risk Factors and other Health Problems.
- UNICEF. (2021). Families on the Edge: Issue 4 Two-steps forward, one step back: The new normal for Malaysian’s Urban Poor. Link
- UNICEF. (2018). Child Without. Link.
- J. Andoy-Galvan, H. Lugova, SS.Patil et al.(2020). Income and obesity in an urban poor community: a cross-sectional study. Link.
- UN World Food Program USA. (2021). 8 Facts to Know about Food Waste and Hunger. Link
- F.Zainal. (2021). Daily food waste staggering. The Star. Link
- A.Dermawan. (2021). Call to reduce food wastage during Ramadan. New Straits Times. Link
- FAO.(2021). The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021. The world is at a critical juncture. Link
- The World Bank. (2014). Food Loss and Waste a Barrier to Poverty Reduction. Link
- A.H. Zaki. (2019). Waste not, want not – it’s time to get serious about food waste. New Straits Times. Link
- The Lost Food Project. Link
- Our Better World. (2021).3Rs of food waste: reduce, reuse & redistribute. Link
- Bernama. (2020). SWCorp:Food waste drops during MCO, rises again soon after. Link
- UNEP. Worldwide food waste. Link
- A. Azuar. (2020). Waste not, want not. The Malaysian Reserve. Link