Misshapen and unsightly vegetables are being saved from the trash heap in Taiwan by food banks and environmentally conscious restaurateurs. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)
Food banks, restaurants and retailers are teaming up to recycle produce, eliminate waste and help those in need.
The knobbly carrots and misshapen potatoes Even Ko (柯詩語) uses to cook curry rice at her restaurant in New Taipei City would never have made it onto supermarket shelves. Vegetables that fail to meet the strict aesthetic standards demanded by vendors and consumers typically end up on the trash heap. But increasingly, environmentally conscious entrepreneurs like Ko are snapping up unsightly produce. “They might not look good, but they’re just as edible and nutritious as normal veggies,” she said. “Why should we toss them?”
Ko opened her vegan eatery four years ago in Xindian District. In 2018, it was named one of 37 model restaurants in Taiwan for tackling food waste by the Cabinet-level Environmental Protection Administration (EPA). Aside from using unattractive but otherwise wholesome produce, the establishments were recognized for such measures as utilizing fruits and vegetables in their entirety and encouraging diners to take home leftovers.
Taiwan is an international leader in promoting reuse of consumables otherwise destined for landfills. Every year, the country transforms roughly 550,000 tons of household kitchen waste into compost and pig feed, according to the EPA. The success of such government campaigns is inspiring a growing number of enterprises to implement food recycling and waste reduction strategies.
Among the most prominent examples from the corporate sector is Carrefour Taiwan. In 2014, the France-headquartered multinational began setting up food donation centers at its 126 hypermarkets and supermarkets around the country. These facilities gather items like unwanted food gifts or surplus groceries from consumers. Carrefour Taiwan followed this up in 2016 by launching daily contributions of unsold or unattractive perishable goods to nongovernmental groups. It salvaged 284 tons of food through this initiative last year.
The retailer is far from the only company in Taiwan targeting food waste. From myriad other examples, restaurant chain 12 Hot Pot, which has more than 50 locations, began supplying visually unappealing meat and vegetables to charities in 2017. And the following year, Unilever Taiwan started donating short-dated packet soups.
Most of these goods go to redistributors like 1919 Food Bank. “In the past, enterprises tended to sell items approaching their expiration dates at a discount, but today they’re more willing to give them away to demonstrate their corporate largesse,” said Sam Chang (張謙方), director of the nonprofit.
Established in 2010 by New Taipei-based Chinese Christian Relief Association (CCRA), 1919 is one of the biggest organizations of its kind in Taiwan. It supplies food to nearly 200 churches working to support about 4,500 disadvantaged youths. The food bank has also negotiated daily donation agreements between 54 of the churches and 84 nearby stores owned by Carrefour, PX Mart and RT-Mart.
To extend the lifespan of the food it receives, 1919 operates a kitchen facility in central Taiwan’s Taichung City. The site creates nutritious sauces for rice and noodles using items like carrots, potatoes, pork and canned tomatoes. The finished products are stored in freezers until they can be dispatched to underprivileged families. According to CCRA, the central kitchen produced about 15 tons of food in 2018.
Two Birds, One Stone
There is growing recognition of the role that food banks can play in helping the underprivileged, rescuing food and reducing waste, said Richard Hwang (黃全慶), an associate professor in the Department of Social Work at Chaoyang University of Technology in Taichung. “Public awareness has increased as food banks have shifted away from dealing almost exclusively with long-life goods like rice and instant noodles toward handling perishable items like fruit, vegetables and meat.”
The motto of the Taiwan People’s Food Bank Association (TPFB)—No Waste, No Hunger—reflects this dual role. Headquartered in Taichung, the association collects food donations and redistributes them among about 170 social welfare groups around Taiwan. “By fighting malnutrition and cutting waste, we’re helping achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals [SDG],” Secretary-General Nancy Liu (劉露霞) said. SDGs 2 and 12 call for zero hunger and responsible consumption and production, respectively.
In addition to solving issues created by unsold products, charitable groups can help tackle excess production, said Jeff Chen (陳玠甫), secretary-general of the Alliance of Taiwan Foodbanks (ATF). In the fall of 2017, aquaculture companies in southern Taiwan were faced with 480 tons of surplus tilapia. ATF stepped in, offering to supply the fish to the underprivileged through a network of partner organizations. “Participating groups had to sign an affidavit stating that they wouldn’t sell the tilapia for profit,” he added.
Distributing perishable items has required food banks to adopt stringent safety protocols. “If organizations wanted to transport the fresh tilapia over longer distances, they had to demonstrate they had freezers capable of storing the fish at minus 18 degrees,” Chen said.
Marilyn Su (蘇小真), CEO of the Carrefour Taiwan Foundation, similarly pointed to the importance of maintaining strict food safety standards, adding that her company does not recycle items that spoil quickly, like bakery products with cream or mayonnaise, so as not to burden food banks. “When offering donations, enterprises need to be aware of the potential reputational repercussions if food safety is not given proper consideration,” she said. “As long as the matter is taken seriously, salvaging food and preventing waste are worthwhile endeavors.”
As Taiwan accelerates domestic waste reduction efforts, it is also working to strengthen international exchanges on the issue through the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). In 2014, the Taiwan-proposed initiative Strengthening Public-Private Partnerships to Reduce Food Losses in the Supply Chain was launched. The five-year project calls on member economies to tackle waste by recycling food and improving cold chain management practices.
In 2017, the Carrefour Taiwan Foundation was invited to an APEC meeting under the initiative in Vietnam to discuss best practices for gathering short-dated items and working with charitable groups. And at a follow-up conference in Taipei City last year, ATF shared its expertise in operating a coordination platform between donors and food banks.
Taiwan nonprofits are also participating in leading international nongovernmental organizations. TPFB represents the nation in the Chicago-based Global FoodBanking Network (GFN), the largest association of its kind. At this year’s GFN convention March 25-27 in London, which was attended by around 150 experts from over 50 countries and territories, Liu presented a report on her association’s efforts to provide food to underprivileged children in remote areas.
On the domestic front, Taiwan’s food banks are working to further entrench the concepts of recycling and waste reduction in society. ATF’s latest project involves installing public refrigerators in communities around the country. Residents place unwanted items in these micro food banks and the disadvantaged can simply take what they need. Volunteers conduct regular inspections to keep the fridges clean and ensure the goods are suitable for donation. ATF has placed refrigerators in more than 50 communities to date, with the number forecast to reach 150 by year-end.
Restaurateurs such as Ko and nonprofits like ATF and TPFB also maintain active social media presences, helping spread the word about reducing food waste. “While Taiwan has made some notable progress in addressing this issue, on the whole people still need to pay far more attention to how much they are throwing away,” Liu said.