As mountains of food continue to rise in Ramadan shopping trolleys, we overlook the sobering statistic that RO57m worth of food in Oman is thrown away yearly – most of it during the Holy Month. Nishad Padiyarath investigates the human cost of this wastage.
On May 15, two days before the start of Ramadan, I walked into a leading hypermarket in Muscat to get the food supplies I required. The shop was crowded with people stocking up on things for the month. A quick glance into most of the heavily laden trolleys, and I could see all sorts of food: rice, pasta, cans of this and that, dessert boxes, fruits and vegetables — the list goes on.
Everywhere in the hypermarket there were various special deals and food promotions: buy two sunflower oil bottles and get an additional one for free, buy four packs of creme caramel and get the fifth free, or get many other items in packages for less than their usual price. Many food products have a “Ramadan Kareem” greeting written on them, with illustrations of lanterns, mosques and crescents.
This is a familiar scene almost every year at this time and every time I see it I can’t help but wonder: isn’t Ramadan the month of fasting? Isn’t it the month in which we are supposed to eat less and pray more, spend on ourselves less and give the needy more?
During the holy month, households, restaurants and hotels tend to prepare more food than is consumed. Unfortunately, a large portion of food usually ends up in landfill. And despite the constant calls from authorities to cut down on food wastage during Ramadan, the amount of dumped food is enormous.
According to the United Nations World Food Programme, about 25,000 people die of hunger or hunger-related causes every day.
On the other hand, statistics by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation show that at least 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year around the world, with the Middle East, including Oman, recognised as a disproportionate contributor.
RO57 million dumped in landfills
Food wastage is a serious concern in Oman, with the problem exacerbating during Ramadan. Hotels, catering companies and individuals in Oman throw away food worth more than RO50 million every year, according to a top official at Oman Environmental Service Holding Company (be’ah).
“Our study based on an analysis of landfills found that 27 per cent of the waste consists of food and that it costs around RO57 million. Sultan Qaboos University did a similar study and the findings were almost identical. You’d be surprised that food waste spikes during Ramadan. What one can do to cut this waste is buy only what one needs and not exceed one’s requirement,” said be’ah vice president Mohammad Al Harthy.
“We see an increase in food wastage during Ramadan due to various reasons. Therefore, we conduct several campaigns during the year to educate people about the concept of reduction and to effect behavioural changes in their food shopping habits, especially during Ramadan,” Al Harthy mentioned.
“This is a crime and the biggest offenders are hotels and restaurants – all uneaten food ends up in the rubbish bins,” said Ahmed Shakel, an activist who helps the needy during Ramadan. “The second offenders are the supermarkets which throw out food that go past their shelf date. Here in Oman we have many poor people and this is the time we need to help them. The food we waste can be given to the needy,” Shakel said.
Charity begins at home
Most of the food wastage happens due to the party-size feasts that take place at homes as well as mosques. “There comes the community outreach role to change the wrong habits of generating food waste through spreading awareness on ways to reduce waste and enlighten people about the negative impact of consuming a high amount of food and how it affects the environment,” said the source at be’ah.
However, hotels in Oman say they are forced to throw away leftovers because of strict health regulations. “We cannot keep cooked food and serve it next day. This is against the rules. Therefore, we throw away the leftovers,” said an official at a leading hotel in Muscat.
According to a source at the Muscat Municipality who keeps a strict watch on hotels, hypermarkets, restaurants and catering companies, they can give away uneaten food to the needy. “Fresh uneaten food can be given away to the needy on the same day if they are fresh rather than throwing away,” said the official.
Charity organisations are also on the lookout for establishments who could help them feed poor families. Leading charity organisation Dar Al Atta’a will provide iftar meals for 300 fasting people every day this Ramadan at three mosques at Al Suwaiq, Al Musanaah and Samail, spending RO9,000 for the purpose. “This is part of our adoption of abandoned families under the Programme of Islamic Values. Dar Al Atta’a spent RO36,982 and distributed Ramadan supplies for this year to 578 families and the number may increase,” said a spokesperson for the organisation.
Food wastage is criminal
Hina Sulaiman, a housewife, ensures no food is wasted during Ramadan. “It’s all about how you plan your iftar,” she said explaining how she manages the food. “When there are leftovers from iftar I refrigerate it for suhoor. I calculate it properly. If there are more leftovers after iftar I will also give to my friends,” she added.
The holy month comes every year to remind us of the many people around the world who don’t have enough food, said Hasna Annacot, IT manager at Amouage Perfumes. “The true meaning of fasting is to experience hunger; to feel humility and compassion towards the poor. One person in the world dies every three seconds because of hunger. Waste of food is criminal,” she pointed out.
“Think about your fellow Muslim, especially the one who goes without food this Ramadan and think yourself lucky you have money to buy food where he does not,” Hasna added.
Meanwhile, Al Harthy claimed that a good way to bring down food wastage was to raise awareness about the issue among the masses. “At the end of the day, it goes back to people. What we can do is raise awareness and ask them not to waste food. Moreover, authorities can try to use this waste to produce compost for farming or biogas to derive energy out of it.
“We at be’ah try to cut food wastage by managing our events better. We get only the amount of food that is required. We also encourage people to take the food that they can’t eat right away in containers to their homes. But we contribute to some of the waste and should do better,” he added.
5 tips to minimise food wastage
be’ah shares five tips to help you minimise your food wastage:
Jishy Seby, diet consultant at Kims Oman Hospital, warned against overeating and breaking fast with unhealthy food to avoid a trip to hospital. First-time fasters and children should resist the urge to feast on unhealthy food, which can become a habit.
According to Seby, fruits, vegetables and low-fat foods should be the main source of energy for those fasting.
She said: “This year fasting becomes tougher as the holy month falls during the hot, long days of June. Main concept is that the food you have at suhoor should stay in your stomach longer.
“The diet during Ramadan should not differ from the normal balanced diet and it should be as simple as possible. It should include all five food groups (cereals, pulses, meat and fish, diary and fats).
“Overeating after iftar and suhoor can not only harm the body but also interfere with a person’s spiritual growth during the month, causing fatigue, sleepiness and lethargy.”
Fasting during the holy month can improve health but the correct diet is not always followed, and usually food habits change to overeating carbohydrates.
However, according to Seby, metabolic function slows down during fasting. “Body and dietary fat is utilised during this period. People who are overweight can reduce their weight by healthy fasting; others can maintain their weight also. Overeating or feasting should be avoided during iftar, dinner or suhoor,” she said.
Seby also advised those fasting to drink sufficient water between iftar and suhoor. “Drink sufficient water between iftar and suhoor to avoid dehydration during fasting. Avoid caffeinated drinks like tea, coffee and cola. These drinks need to be reduced one week prior to fasting. This helps to reduce headache during fasting. After dinner it is always good to engage in light exercise like stretching or walking which aids in digestion.”