As Oman’s population grows, so does the nation’s food waste. This week, Y takes a look at a longstanding phenomenon that must be addressed, and speaks to restaurateurs who are taking a strong stand against the societal cost of over-consumption.
Food is nothing short of a miracle.
The journey each ingredient takes – from a humble seed or sapling in a farm that requires constant care, to a fully-grown fruit or vegetable that’s harvested, prepped, and cooked for consumption, culminating in a delectable dish – is truly remarkable.
Food is sustenance; food is survival. Our very existence on the planet depends on its availability, while its scarcity can make or break a country’s development. Food security can be quintessential to a nation’s economy, while hunger itself is regarded as a great equaliser.
Yet to many, a dish is only appealing for as long as your hunger lasts – and every day, we throw away our food… as waste.
People all over the globe discard a staggering 1,600mn tonnes of food every year (as per statistics revealed by foodisforeating.org), and the Sultanate is no stranger to the act – be it in the form of food waste from restaurants, homes, and even smaller eateries.
In fact, reports show that in 2018 nearly RO57mn worth of food as discarded as waste in the Sultanate – that’s a vast 560,000 tonnes annually. The world is staring down the barrel of a grim global phenomenon (in lower income countries) – death by hunger – which claims the lives of 25,000 people, daily, and 9.1mn people, annually, according to the United Nations World Food Program.
While Oman remains exempt from this phenomenon owing to its food security, we learn from statistics revealed by the Oman Environment Services Holding Company (Be’ah) that wasted food can help meet 18 per cent of Oman’s annual demand.
It’s a large number when you factor in how ‘plate waste’ – a standard of measurement to better understand food loss, eating habits, and specific targets of nutritional programs in schools – contributes to much of the nation’s annual food wastage.
Talking about this issue is Mohammed al Balushi, Managing Partner of Chatni restaurant in Azaiba. He says: “Food wastage is an issue that we all need to consider rectifying immediately.
“it all begins with how we treat this matter within our families. These values need to begin from our homes – be it if you’re Omani, Indian, British, or any nationality.
“I have on good authority that I make sure that my family only purchases perishable foods that are necessary for consumption. And it’s always wise to raise your family with those morals. Only then will they grow to apply it when they go outside and into restaurants and other places.
“I personally get furious when I see food being wasted. I don’t know if it’s because I run a restaurant here, but I’ve taken that stance since a long time ago.”
Mohammed makes a strong case, as a report based on food wastage by families – by each member for lunch over one week – published by Sultan Qaboos University showed us how wastage was between 143g to 41g for children and adults, respectively.
It also showed that children between the ages of one and five wasted the most amount of food at 57 per cent, while wastage by adults above the age of 40 stood at seven per cent, and adolescents in the age group of six to 18 wasted about 56 per cent of the food on their plates.
Understandably, plate waste can’t be salvaged for re-use in restaurants owing to hygiene reasons.
But several restaurateurs are striving to overcome this by preparing food solely to order – thereby offering a tastier and fresher meal and reducing food waste.
Mohammed’s restaurant follows this policy, and he proudly says that food waste is kept to a minimum when compared with some other eateries in the region.
It’s also a concept that’s adopted by Teeffee, a café owned and operated by Nafih Abdullah, and several other fast-food chains we speak with over the course of our research.
“Preparing food by the order makes complete sense and it was an idea that came to being here in the GCC by Western fast-food outlets. Not only did they prepare the food only based on order and reduced wastage due to over-production, they also reduced the usage of raw materials such as cooking oil and brought down expenses.”
As ingenious as the idea sounds, implementing it can be difficult, especially in specialised food that requires time to prepare, says Nafih.
The 20-year-old entrepreneur tells us that the real challenge lies in preparing the ‘right quantities for buffets and while catering to large-scale events.’
“It’s hard to pre-determine how much food must be prepared for a large party. And to keep customers satisfied and not run out of food midway through an event, we must prepare more than what the head count usually is.
“Thus, catering became a challenge, but a brainstorming session got us through this: we realised that we could strive to make a difference in society by simply altering our goals when we prepare our food.
“Making a profit isn’t the only basis of running a restaurant – that was my goal. So, we packed up all the untouched excess food that we were getting from our buffets and began distributing them among those in a lower income bracket.
“We took a while to determine the areas where we could distribute these packets of fresh food, but we now have a very good route map on where people could benefit from our food… for free.
“By about 6:00 p.m. or 7:00 p.m. – only a few hours from when the food was prepared – we get our drivers to distribute these packets to people. We treat them as our customers, and they get nothing less than the best.”
On a good day, Nafih says that his team distributes anywhere between 15 to 30 packets of fresh, delectable dishes to workers in camps.
“The smiles on their faces brings a smile on ours. That reminds me why I wanted to begin this business in the first place.”
Even though Nafih’s café is virtually waste-free, the (occasional) leftovers can be packed up by their employees and taken home or consumed at the restaurant for free.
This keeps Teeffee’s waste to the bare minimum, with only plate waste from customers making its way into the dustbins.
Meanwhile, another Muscat hotel takes utilising its food and making a change in the community to a whole different level – one that’s earning them praise from residents. It does so by feeding the animals on the street.
Speaking about this initiative is Leon Salinel, the Director of Sales and Marketing at the Centara Muscat Hotel. He explains to us: “We have a company-wide practice to serve the society in every way we can.
“While we do our share to contribute to people, we thought we’d go one step further and show our love to those who don’t have a voice: the animals.
“So, we began by accumulating all the vegetable and fruit skins, and the not-so-fresh food and began offering it for the donkeys in Al Amerat to eat.
“This can be anywhere between 150kgs every month – that’s quite a substantial amount of food that’s going to use.”
Leon then goes on to tell how their next target is to mince the cooked food and offer it to the cats and dogs in Al Amerat.
“There are several places that we want to cover, but we’re now in the initial stages of creating awareness. If more people see this, then they’ll probably want to do this with the food that’s often going to waste at their homes or businesses too.”
Adnan Gabol al Balushi, another entrepreneur operating Oman’s oldest restaurant, Omar Al Khayyam, among several others, such as The View in Jebel Sifah, says: “I think we need to incorporate a law here, like France did, to ban wasting food. There, it’s forbidden for shops to destroy or throw away products approaching their sell-by date.
“If the food can’t be donated, it goes for animal feed or is composted to produce methane fuel. And big players here need to do something along the lines of that – nothing should go to complete waste.”
Our research reveals how several fast-food chains refrain from allowing their employees to consume untouched and hygienic food that a customer refrains from collecting.
Perhaps this is why Be’ah is setting up four bio-gas plants in the country – to persuade restaurants and eateries to not throw food into dumpsters without thinking twice. The sites for the plants are yet to be disclosed, but they’ll aid in production of bio-gas and electricity, while other by-products can be used as manure for crops.
“My policy is that we shouldn’t waste any food. If it’s left over by a customer, we just give it to stray cats, or some people come and collect it for their livestock,” says Adnan.
“I believe it’s a sin to waste food in this time when people around the globe are struggling for it. Keep that in mind when you next waste your food.”