19:00 – Beirut, Lebanon
In Lebanon, Maya is providing thousands of free meals to refugees and other people in need
Q&A with Alpha Foodie’s Samira Kazan
Alpha Foodie: You started FoodBlessed, 7 years ago. What was it that made you realise something had to be done?
Maya Terro: Despite being founded in 2012, I think my story with FoodBlessed started way before that.
When asked, I usually describe myself as a lifelong activist. I believe I’ve been an activist all my life, even before the word “activist” was beknown to me! I started volunteering since I was 14 years of age and since then I’ve been an activist of all sorts – political, social and environmental. While volunteering with local and international charities, little did I know that one day I will be leading and managing my very own NGO.
In Lebanon where around 30 percent of the population lives under the poverty, almost 30 percent of all edible food never gets eaten. This paradoxical reality inspired me to become a food activist. Not long after that, FoodBlessed was born. The main reason behind starting FoodBlessed was the need to provide a sustainable solution to the twin problems of food insecurity and food waste by pioneering a local, community-based, volunteer-driven approach.
FoodBlessed aims to replace the customary food-as-charity, needs-based model with a proactive rights-based approach to food security. In addition to raising awareness about food waste within civil society, as well as offering practical solutions to reduce food waste, one of the central ideas behind FoodBlessed was to spread awareness about the fact that the needy are needy all year long. Normally people are most enthusiastic about helping and giving back to the community during special occasions like Ramadan and Christmas, whereas in reality, people suffer from hunger all year long.
AF: How many meals has your team served since FoodBlessed started? How many centres do you now operate?
MT: Since its foundation, and with the help of thousands of our Hunger Heroes, FoodBlessed has successfully operated 5 soup kitchens whereby we distribute free nutritious meals to those in need. Some of the soup kitchens we’ve operated served up to 600 meals per day.
With this in mind, the past 7 years or so, together with our volunteers and Blessed partners, we’ve successfully distributed over half a million free meals to those in need. We’ve also managed to save more than 100 000 tonnes of food from going to waste; another amazing achievement that we’re really proud of. However, that’s just one of many reasons that inspire FoodBlessed to achieve even more.
The sharing of food has always been part of the human story. Food is more than survival, food is a blessing, food is love. At FoodBlessed, we believe that more than anything else, that when you share your food with others, you show your love for them. Likewise, using the power of food and social responsibility, I believe that what we do at FoodBlessed gives people in Lebanon, especially our volunteers aka our “Hunger Heroes”, a sense of empowerment and a chance to translate their care into action, action that inspires others to become more active citizens in their respective communities. Through a meal, cooked, rescued, served or shared, my volunteers and I are creating and promoting change on a daily basis, one meal at a time.
That said, our next soup kitchen locale which will happen to be our 6th is set to hopefully launch on World Food Day i.e. Oct 16, 2019. Super psyched!
AF: Do you create specific dishes? Or is it more of being open to whichever ingredients you receive?
MT: At FoodBlessed, we make sure that we consistently create delicious and nutritious meals with what we have. The meals we usually serve are either dishes prepared from scratch or surplus food recovered from events.
With only a few exceptions, food will remain wholesome and safe to eat long past its expiration date. But today, consumers and retailers will simply throw it out – and, in fact, some states currently prohibit the sale or donation of past-date food. This waste hurts our community, and our environment! That’s why in addition to rescuing surplus food from going to waste, we also make we also rescue excess/close-to-expiry products across FMCG and retail companies that would otherwise go to waste.
Given that the majority of our ingredients are either donated and/or rescued, improvising has become a way of life in our kitchens! So while we aim to create specific dishes, we do so by adding a pinch of creative. Indeed, with years of improvising under our sleeves, we were able to extend our cooking skills, creativity and imagination into great lengths. As a result, we managed to create some pretty delicious, albeit unusual, dishes by cooking up rescued ingredients that otherwise would have never met in a dish.
It’s simple really, instead of looking at it as a challenge, cooking on the whim, albeit challenging, is tremendous fun!
AF: What are some of your essentials for ensuring a dish is nutritious?
MT: When preparing a dish, we always make sure to include all food groups. This means that we try our best to make sure each meal we serve has fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein foods part in them. This entails a lot of research, advice from our nutritionists, and occasionally asking our mamas’ two cents. Moreover, when thinking of recipes, we also make sure to have a vegetarian and non-vegetarian version of the dish we’re preparing.
Unfortunately, just like food waste happens throughout the food supply chain, same thing happens across the food pyramid. In other words, no food group is safe from food waste. While we rescue a lot of veggies and fruits, we rarely rescue meat and chicken or get them donated which is why we find ourselves having to buy our need of meat and poultry.
At the end of the day, we always strive to make sure that our food not only tastes good, but it also feels good. Anyone who walks into our soup kitchen will be greeted to a table where they are served a main dish, some sort of local stew, salad, a piece of fruits, dessert and a glass of juice/water. Rescued bread is also served with each meal, when available. More than that, and you’ll hear that a lot from our soup kitchen goers, a lot of our beneficiaries will tell us that our food tastes delicious but what really keeps them coming back is not that, it’s knowing that what is cooked at FoodBlessed is cooked with love and served with warm smiles.
AF: How did you go about recruiting the many volunteers you work with?
MT: FoodBlessed is a community-based and volunteer-driven. This means that volunteers are at the core of who we are and what we do – all the work we do and the impact we strive to create is made possible thanks to sum of the efforts and hours of the many volunteers that believe in and support who we are (our vision), what we do (our mission), what we believe in (our values).
Prior to establishing FoodBlessed, I used to think that people didn’t really care as much as they should or only cared when it was convenient for them to do so. However, my work at FoodBlessed proved me wrong. In reality, a lot of people cared, and they cared a lot too, they just didn’t know how to translate their care into something tangible!
At FoodBlessed, we use the power of food, social responsibility, and civic engagement to enable individuals to transform their sincere care into substantial action. As we empower our volunteers to aspire to become the change they want to see, they inspire others to join our league of hunger heroes on a mission to make hunger and food waste things of the past in Lebanon.
MY TWO CENTS aka my TOP TIPS for recruiting the right volunteers:
More than just recruiting volunteers, we always try to recruit the right volunteers. Personally, I know a lot about volunteering. I’ve been volunteering myself since I was 14 yrs. old. When it comes to FoodBlessed, you’ve got formal recruitment methods like when we take part in NGO fairs and sometimes it goes down to just asking.
Just ask. Many times people will approach me when they see me wearing the HH t-shirt that us volunteers wear usually at FoodBlessed. Other times, I ask them. I’ve got a good eye for the right volunteers. People like being asked to volunteer. We usually announce why and when we need volunteer help on Facebook and Instagram; inviting our best leads usually happens personally on our Whatsapp group. Word of mouth also plays a key role.
Create lifetime volunteers. Over the years, I was able to help create not just a body of dedicated volunteers but what I like to refer to as a community. Creating a relationship with new and old volunteers that will make them want to come back. When managing volunteers, always treat them the way you would want to be treated. Manage them with respect, provide feedback and empower them to have a rewarding experience.
“No is not equal to never”. If you ask an individual to volunteer and they say no, don’t take that as a rejection. Their schedule may not permit or they may feel that it is not a position they’ll enjoy. Continue your contact and awareness raising anyway – Your volunteers will sign on and off at different phases of their yearly schedule and their life circumstances.
Leave some spots empty. Sometimes a volunteer spot is better left empty then filled with a person who is just there to fill the spot.
Opt for the People Driven type. Recruit individuals who want to be a part of your team and not just a seat.
AF: In addition to feeding the hungry, you also work with local retailers to minimise food waste. Was it difficult at first convincing retailers to get on board? How many sources now donate their food waste?
MT: I’ve always believed that restaurants and grocery stores must donate their food to those in need, rather than watch it end up in a landfill. Sadly, this has turned out to be easier said than done. I have tried with a lot of restaurants and hotels and retailers and only a handful have agreed to donate to our cause. One of these is Wesley’s Whole Sale is big supermarket that sells US imported goods. In one year, we’ve been able to rescue around 10 000 tons of food from going to waste. Another example is TUSK bakery, an artisan bakery that serve all things sourdough based and over the past 3 years we’ve been able to rescue over 10 tons of bread from going to waste.
Expired products represent a major source of food waste. The dates you may see on products aren’t always indicative of when the items will expire either. The date you see on food products is what is known as the ‘best before’ date. They’re put on by the manufacturer of the product and it’s basically just an arbitrary line drawn in the sand by these food producers who basically decide when a product is not at its absolute ideal state. It suggests to consumers that if they’re not going to eat it by a certain date, there is no point eating it at all, but that simply isn’t true.
Then there’s the fresh produce. A lot of it being thrown out is edible. A lot of it will be, for example, produce that has a little ding in the side of it, or an apple with a little bruise on it or an apple that turned ripe. A lot of it will even just be a box of non-perishable food that has a dent in the corner. These are some of the inconveniences are what push the supermarkets to throw out their items. In some parts of Europe, many places in some cases, will even poison or inject bleach into it to prevent people from taking it back out of their dumpsters and consuming them.
As for restaurants, most of them will refuse to donate their surplus food under food safety claims. They’ll tell you it’s just not ‘safe’ for consumption. We can’t and don’t want to be held accountable in case someone ends up feeling sick because of the stuff that we donated in good will.
In good news, France was the first country to adopt a legislation that forces grocery stores to donate edible food. As a result, its food waste has dropped to a third of other developed countries. How cool is that? I’m hoping more countries including Lebanon will follow France’s lead sometime in the future. I have already taken it upon myself to make this wish of mine a reality which is why back in 2014 I drafted “The Lebanese Food Donation” Act which ensures that surplus and excess/close-to-expiry ends up feeding empty bellies, instead of trash bins.
AF: How do you stay motivated each day?
MT: Many times, especially when we are feeling down, we start to doubt our life decisions. Things we knew to be true start to feel shaky. It is on days like these when we feel like quitting on our dreams and doing what is expected of us.
Whenever I feel like that, which happens more often than you’d think, instead of worrying or quitting, I sit back and reflect on all the things that I have accomplished over these past years! It is on days like these when I remind myself of the huge impact that something I started many years ago has been able to have on the lives of many.
I believe your life is as important as the impact it leaves on the lives of others. This concrete belief of mine is the reason I wake up every day and the reason why I chose to overcome all the obstacles, be it emotional, financial, or psychological, that I have faced and still face on a daily basis.
FoodBlessed has changed and enriched my life and the lives of those it touches in so many ways that I honestly don’t have a clear cut answer for this question. Whenever I am feeling hopeless or helpless (and believe it or not, the situation in Lebanon and its people make me feel like that at times), I remind myself why FoodBlessed was born. One look at my “Hunger Heroes” in action and all of a sudden my faith in humanity is restored. I cannot express how proud I am that so many people nowadays identify FoodBlessed as a community and not just a cause.
With FoodBlessed, I am lucky to be able to turn my passion for food and my pursuit of empowering others into a humanitarian mission that “nourishes” individuals, communities, and public institutions to promote positive change and social cohesion in their country, one meal at a time.
AF: I work with my team to create new recipes and content daily for @Alphafoodie and we are always careful not to waste any food. What are your top tips for minimising food waste at home?
MT: Unknown to a lot of people, food waste takes place along the whole of the food supply chain i.e. from the farm to the fork.
There’s a phrase that I came up with for one of my presentations once. I was telling the audience that in order to reduce your food waste, you need to contemPLATE your plate. You need to reflect on what goes on your plate: where did it come from? How will you consume it? What will happen to the leftovers, in case you had any. The major problem in today’s world is less and less people, especially the younger generations, simply don’t value things we can afford or don’t spend much on. We’re very careful about getting deals and discounts at grocery stores and at big-box retailers, but those values don’t mean anything when half of that food goes in the trash. Right?
We need to go back to the root of the problem. That’s why, in order to help avoid waste at our homes, we need to reconnect with our food. Whether you choose to grow our own food or simply choose to shop consciously and cook purposefully, you’re less likely to waste.
So how can I “connect” more with my food and food supply? It’s easier than you think, really.
Here are some extremely easy and practical tips below.
- Shop smart (use a grocery list) and realistically (buy only what you need).
- Never shop on an empty stomach.
- Don’t fall for bargains.
- Cook and serve food realistically (start with small portions).
- Store food in the right places and at the right temperatures.
- Avoid clutter in your fridge, pantry and freezer.
- Treat expiration and best-by dates as guidelines.
- Save – and actually eat – leftovers.
- Keep track of what you throw away so that you know what to avoid buying in the future.
AF: What are the top three things you’ve learned running FoodBlessed over the past few years
MT: FoodBlessed has changed my life in so many ways. I have met people from all walks of life and all backgrounds. It has enriched me as a person. It’s not an easy endeavor to follow one’s passion all the way. 1/You will face many obstacles and you’ll hear more No’s than YES’s. Rejoice for the Yes’s and embrace the No’s. Try to do better. 2/Your best friends and family will not support you. That’s OK. Forgive them and move on with your business anyway. 3/You will do a lot of mistakes as well. That’s normal. Try to learn from them.
In a nutshell…
- Be unapologetically you, every time – As a young, female, activist it is difficult to be an agent of change at times, especially in Arab societies. Sadly, the majority of people, including those closest to you, will judge you and often mistaken your diligent determination for ego or for aggressiveness. By and by, you’ll realize that that’s totally fine as it sometimes extremely difficult for those around you to understand why you’re doing what you are doing. But if you’re anything like me, always remind yourself to never lose hope; to be true to yourself; and to spend as much time as you can doing what you love, cause you only get one life.
- Never. Stop. Learning – Knowledge in power, so make sure you learn as much as you can, from where you are, while you still can. And always remember this, real learning starts outside the classroom. Those who are courageous enough to leave the comfort of their classroom seats are the ones who truly learn.
- Choose your battles – I believe that the battles we really lose are the ones we are too scared to even try fighting. Trying is half the battle. Wherever life leads you, it really doesn’t matter ‘what’ you do, what really matter is ‘why’ you do it. As such, try to make sure that you always walk the talk, that you lead by example and that what you end up doing in life, ends up having a tangible impact and making a positive difference in other people’s lives.
AF: In what ways can we get involved from afar and support FoodBlessed?
MT: There are three ways by which one can spread and support FoodBlessed’s message far and wide to help make hunger and food waste things of the past.
You can either: ADVOCATE. DONATE. OR. VOLUNTEER
ADVOCATing our cause is as simple as spreading the good word about all the good work we do at FoodBlessed. It could be as simple as sharing our page on Facebook or liking or profile page on Instagram. Advocating our cause from afar can also be as simple as asking your friend or your neighbor to check our website.
Advocating is an important step since the more people get to know about us, the more are the chances that some of these will go on to support us by either volunteering with us or by donating to our cause.
VOLUNTEERing is so much fun with FoodBlessed. We’ve had a number of tourists spend their free time fighting hunger and food waste We’ve even had some folks come from all parts of the world just to volunteer their time with local charities just like us.
And while our Hunger Heroes are at the core of who we are and what we do, we also rely heavily on donations, be it monetary or in-kind. As such, we believe that every amount donated, big or small, can mean the world to us.
We’re currently running an online fundraiser The Community Fridge Fund which aims at installing community fridges across Lebanon, starting with Beirut, and in refugee camps. It supposed to close on Sept 1, but we might extend it in case we didn’t reach the target at hand or make it an ongoing campaign. We’re also hoping to work on two other projects in 2020, one being an app that connects food donors to food donees and the other a mobile soup kitchen.
You can also donate offline, either via our bank account at BBAC, or via Western Union for instance. For more on that, you can always drop us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can further assist you in this matter or answer any inquiries that you might have.
AF: What is your main objective going forward?
MT: To give and it is only when we give of ourselves that we truly give!
When we serve a meal at FoodBlessed, we are actually sharing a token of love, respect, and appreciation to the person we are serving! At FoodBlessed, thus, everything revolving around a meal and by that I mean the activities surrounding it, the people serving it and so on and so forth bears a meaning besides providing nutrition to the body. It bears a bigger, nobler, social meaning, that of love and social cohesion! If you don’t feed your mind and soul, you just exist. There’s a big difference between living and between staying alive!
So when you ask me what is my main objective going forward it would be this: Giving, I always believed gave me more than it took from me. I’ve always believed and I know this much is true and that is life’s sweet successes, our self-fulfillment and the planet’s perpetual prosperity are unattainable in the absence of giving. You see it’s simple as this. It is in giving that we actually receive. The world needs more people who are willing to go above and beyond their call of duty and give their all to make this world better. People need to stand up and start adding value to their own lives by adding value to other people’s lives. Leading a life of where I am of service to others and living selflessly has been, is, a way of life to me. You too can be a giver and in that being trust that you will awaken those around you to their greatest self. You shall get what you give, every single time. So give always. Give generously. Just give. That good you put out into the world will return to you in an abundance. You got my word for it.