Waste Not, Want Not: Feeding the Hunger during the Pandemic

MANY of us in Subang Jaya have seen Alvin Chen running around from place to place like Santa Claus with his ride filled with goodies. Sometimes his “ride” is filled to the roof with trays of eggs, freshly baked buns and even fresh vegetables in crates. What does this unassuming man do? Meet Alvin, the co-founder of What a Waste; and let’s find out what his mission is, should he choose to accept it. Oh! He decided to take on the mission.

  1. What is What a Waste (WaW)?

WaW or What a Waste started out as a movement in 2017 to call for a concerted fight against food waste through prevention than cure method. Our mission is to fight food waste and poverty hunger hand-in-hand by recovering lost food (excess meals, aging vegetables and fruits, near expiry food items, etc) through our rescue missions and immediately repurposing or rechanneling it to the needy communities (urban poor) through our feeding missions. WaW’s unorthodox and impactful approach, which also embraces sustainable practices in our missions quickly gained popularity and eventually warrants the setting up of a proper entity to propel this social and environmental based movement into a core activity; hence, the establishment of WaW in Dec 2018. Three years down the road, we expanded our trademark food rescue initiative to also include tapau food container rescue to curb single use plastic, disaster relief, targeted welfare cases, community services and empowerment initiatives as part of WaW missions. Our main mission currently is to uplift our B40 individuals who can cook through our WaW B40 Cooks Programme.

If you like “What a Waste” is also a connotation of regret or a common expression of regret when we see something good goes to waste. So we deliberately adopted and entitle the organization as such.

  1. Is WaW a business, social enterprise or NGO?

WaW is a social enterprise that focuses on environmental and hunger issues.

  1. Where do you get your funds from to operate such a set-up?

Both Angela and I started off as a self-funded organization and we did it not because we had surplus income (which we didn’t have) but because we wanted to inspire the younger generation to unconventional possibilities to modern day business ventures. In the early phase we performed all our food rescue missions on pro-bono basis. When we found our rhythm and gained popularity in the local wedding scenes we started to carve out a unique green wedding package for couples to have their surplus food rescued and shared with the urban poor on their biggest day. We were paid a service fee by the couples, which was our only source of income then. We went on to collaborate with wedding planners and saw that our order books were full. As we gained recognition as ‘Food Rescue Specialist’, we eventually made inroads to various corporate events. We have performed more than 600 food rescue missions from weddings, corporate events, festive celebrations, and individual households to memorial wakes, all as a paid service. As we progressed and scale up our set-up, we also receive occasional CSR sponsorships from some corporations who appreciate our methods and vision.

  1. Tell us a little bit about yourself Alvin. What did you use to do b4 WaW?

I was an Architect by profession. Having practised architecture for 15 years, I was involved in the design of a multitude of affordable housing schemes in Malaysia (Rumah Selangorku, Rumah WIP, PPA1M) and abroad, educating on prefabricated housing systems in Acheh, Timor Leste, Sudan and Vietnam to name a few. In my pursuance for a better built environment using sustainable architecture as a medium, I was eventually inspired by my wife Angela (the brainchild of WaW), to gradually be fully involved with. I took a leap of faith (literally), departed from my professional career and descended myself to the ground to start serving the communities in every capacity I could. Ever since, I have used food as a main medium in my pursuance for a better built environment. Together with my wife, who also came from an architectural background we had a vision to bring our rescue missions to a professional level so we started documenting the weight of our rescued food to measure how much greenhouse gasses have been prevented from our landfills, through our daily missions. To date, we have rescued more than 1.6mil tons of edible food from the landfills which translates to some 800kg of methane gas prevented from escaping into the atmosphere. All these rescued food were either rechanneled directly to our beneficiaries or repurposed into wholesome meals by our cooks to serve the needy communities. In pledging that “no one goes to bed in hunger under our watch”, I spent an average of 12 hours a day, 7 days a week attending to the various many marginalized communities. It is my dream to see my hometown, Subang Jaya as a model city in the area of fighting food waste. Imagine all F&B outlets stop binning their food and start passing on.

  1. In 2020 when the pandemic hit our shores, what did WaW do?

The pandemic put a hard stop to our core activities of rescuing food from weddings. There being no events, we improvised and did a pivot to our approach. So, from rescuing only cooked food from events, we started rescuing other perishables like aging vegetables and fruits, meat, etc. Concurrently, we advocated for home cooks and partner cooks who could assist us to repurpose all these rescued ingredients into wholesome and nutritional food packs. That was how we managed to distribute between 300 to 1200 food packs daily from MCO 1 till today.

  1. As Covid-19 infection levels climbed, how did WaW adapt to meet the demands of the situation?

As the infection climbed, the amount of our new beneficiaries’ sky rocketed. So, we further increased our daily capacity in tandem with what we saw on the ground. In stepping out of our comfort zone, we find ourselves now dealing with all sorts of food items, both perishables and non-perishables. As a result, we constantly have both cooked food, food boxes and veggie boxes to assist the various groups of communities and individuals affected. Coupled with the strong support and trust from some food companies, we eventually started a food bank with an emphasis on nutritional values in the food aid that we give out.

  1. How do people contribute if they want to support WaW?

Public members can purchase WaW food packs prepared by our B40 cooks. All purchased food packs will then be distributed to the needy communities. Every purchase provides an income to our B40s while supporting our missions. Public can also purchase grocery supplies from our partner farmers and vendors through WaW platform. As the number of our B40 cooks increase, the need for us to set up a WaW centralised B40 kitchen is inevitable. We are open to accept any monetary contribution for this purpose. Equally appreciate if people could spread our awareness by sharing WaW Facebook page.

  1. What do you not do in WaW?

We have a strict policy against outright monetary aid because we belief it does more harm than good. It breeds complacency when we hand out cash and it stops any opportunity of “pulling up your own socks”. So, however challenging or emotionally moved when we deal with a certain case, we still stand firm on our grounds.

  1. How do you distinguish genuine cases against those who may take advantage of your work?

We establish the authenticity or credibility of a case through personal visitations (even though recommended by a credible source) hence we are always on ground everywhere, communicating with the various many. This SOP applies across the board, even to welfare homes, prior to any form of assistance from our end. Through conversations from the personal visits, we can access and deduce a lot of information, from the mannerism to the body language. I can tell if it’s a half truth from their verbal replies. From their living condition, I can access and get a grasp of their character. All these would inform if the needy truly deserves it. Follow-ups and constant monitoring of our beneficiaries are also our common practice to ensure their status is constantly updated. We also get ourselves involved with NGOs, local councils and community leaders who are serving a similar community to ensure we don’t replicate our aid.

  1. You have walked into many Covid-19 infected homes and areas. What is the worst fear you have before stepping in?

My worst fear before stepping in is that I may just bring home the virus to my 2 young kids, despite all the safety precautions taken. All the selfless acts would become a selfish one because I exposed my young ones to such high risk. I equally fear causing another round of anxiety to my aging mother and brother overseas who are worried sick of my daily missions but remain supportive of what I am compelled to do.

Check out WaW on their Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/whatawasteMY