German Millennial Launches Food-Saving Movement in Taiwan
Save Food to Stop Wastage
What should we do with surplus food? Tossing food into the bin is wasteful, but how can it be donated to people who need or want it? German research assistant Stefan Simon is promoting foodsharing in Taiwan, not only to reduce food waste, but also for the sake of a more sustainable environment.
Save Food to Stop WastageBy He-cheng Yen
Huddled away in an alley off Wenzhou Street near National Taiwan University (NTU), the coffeeshop-restaurant Halfway Cafe is located on the ground floor of an old apartment building. In a corner of the outdoor area sits an old refrigerator. “We haven’t gotten anything yet today,” notes café owner Yang Tzi-hsuan as she opens the door of the fridge.
Yang is not talking about the cakes and pastries that coffeeshops typically sell. The public fridge, which bears a label saying “food hub”, is reserved for excess food that been donated anonymously and will be taken away by unknown people. The goal is to encourage people to donate surplus food or foodstuffs that are close to expiry for use by those who need or want them.
“The point is that we shouldn’t waste food,” says Yang.
Interestingly, the mastermind behind the public fridge is a 27-year-old German who lives in Taiwan. Stefan Simon currently serves as research assistant with the Research Center for Environmental Changes at Academia Sinica. He founded Foodsharing Taiwan hoping to reduce pointless food wastage.
“Every person wastes some food, but, even if it is just one piece of bread, it’s is very regrettable if food is thrown away. Through the concept of foodsharing, we can rescue some foodstuffs. It doesn’t matter if it is only a little; the point is not to waste food by throwing it away,” says Simon, who began to promote the food-sharing concept in Taiwan in 2016.
Public Fridges for Sharing Surplus Food
Meanwhile, about 10 public fridges are one approach toward reducing food waste. People who want to share food can leave a message on the Facebook page of the respective fridge where they plan to deposit their surplus food. The message should include necessary information such as what kind of food it is, its quantity, expiry date and when it will be placed in the fridge. People who need the items go and fetch it themselves. Often people from the neighborhood bring surplus or leftover food from their homes, but sometimes people from outside make special deliveries such as when there are leftover boxed lunches from an event.
Another way to reduce food wastage is cooperating with bakeries. Foodsharing Taiwan cooperates with Oma’s German Bakery, which is located near NTU. Volunteers are responsible for contacting the bakery every day, and if there is leftover bread, community members pick it up at a designated time.
“Why do we do this? Because we approve of their ideal that food should not be wasted,” explains one bakery employee.
A Democratic, Bottom-up Grassroots Movement
The foodsharing movement started in Germany with dumpster diving. Supermarkets, organic food stores and other food retailers toss unwanted food such as when the packaging is damaged, or when a product does not sell well or is close to expiry into outdoor trash cans or dumpsters. The dumpster divers “salvage” the discarded treasures. However, this is, strictly speaking, an illegal activity since the discarded food is still the stores’ property. Store owners also worry that they could be held liable if someone gets sick after consuming dumpster-dived goods.
In 2012, a group of dumpster divers in Berlin set up a food-sharing website to reduce food wastage. They signed disclaimers with store owners, releasing them from liability for the discarded food. Members of the food-sharing community were also required to sign a pledge to play by the rules before they gained permission to collect food from vendors. They assumed responsibility for their own actions and agreed to personally use the salvaged food and pledged not to sell it. Gradually, the concept of food sharing took shape, spreading from Germany to Austria, Switzerland and other European countries. Meanwhile more than 200,000 people have joined the ranks of the “foodsavers.”
The foodsavers are more of a movement than an organization, since there is no organizational structure, and all of the participants are volunteers. Each store has a contact person for the volunteers who is responsible for coordinating the pickup times. “This is an entirely volunteer, very democratic, decentralized grassroots movement,” says Simon. “I joined the movement when studying at university in Germany; that’s where a lot of my food came from.”
Simon came to Taiwan for the first time in 2013 to do some research for his master’s thesis. After obtaining a master’s degree in environmental sciences in Germany, he applied for a scholarship to learn Chinese at NTU. Following the scholarship, Simon stayed in Taiwan after landing his research job with Academia Sinica. Since Simon takes great interest in sustainability issues and also noticed that a lot of food goes to waste in Taiwan, he set out to replicate the German model here. Relying entirely on the help of friends since there was no other form of assistance available, he set up a website and began to present the concept to shop owners.
Foodsharing is Not About Charity Donations
Taiwan does have organizations that are engaged in similar ways. Supermarket chain Carrefour, for instance, cooperates with food banks that distribute food that is about to expire to disadvantaged groups and elderly people living alone. However, the food sharing that Simon promotes is not primarily about charitable donations but simply aims to reduce food wastage. After all, not all food retailers can cooperate with food banks. The traditional roadside breakfast stores must discard food that is not sold by the end of the day, but since such leftovers are highly perishable and do not come in large quantities, they are not suitable for food bank donations.
“How can we dispose of leftover sandwiches and soy milk? Isn’t it very wasteful to toss them out?” asks Simon incredulously. “This movement hopes that all people can become foodsavers. Moreover, since most foodsavers live in the shops’ neighborhood, this is also a way of building closer personal links in the community.”
Does Foodsharing Make You a Penny Pincher?
However, since attitudes differ in Taiwan and Germany, promoting food sharing here means tackling major challenges. First of all, finding shops that are willing to cooperate is not easy. On the one hand, retailers and restaurant operators worry that customers won’t buy anything anymore, instead only coming to pick up free items. On the other hand, they are concerned they could be held liable if a customer gets sick after eating free leftover food. Therefore, their willingness to cooperate is rather low.
“Our experience is that staff members normally say that such a decision must be made by the boss and that they will contact us, but then we never hear from them again,” says Simon. Therefore, Oma’s German Bakery is currently the only long-term, regular cooperation partner. Of course, the bakery has also signed a disclaimer modeled after the German approach.
Simon notes that saving food does not mean that people won’t buy food anymore, since what they get for free from the public fridge is not necessarily what they want most. On the contrary, they might buy even more because they need other items to complement the free items for a full meal. “If they just enter the store, there will be more opportunities for consumption,” explains Simon, who has personally had this experience in Germany.
Oma’s German Bakery has experienced the same in Taiwan. In the beginning, bakery staff were worried that customers would only go for the free food, but these fears did not materialize. There were indeed people in the neighborhood who saw foodsavers pick up free food, so they thought that anyone could just walk in and grab free bread. With the help of volunteers from Foodsharing Taiwan, they explained to them that “free bread” was not about getting bread for free but to reduce wastage, and that they would have to become members and respect the rules before they could participate.
While it is already difficult to find retailers who are willing to cooperate, changing consumer attitudes is a much greater challenge. On the one hand, Taiwanese people tend to associate food donations with charity, so shop owners prefer to donate their leftover food to disadvantaged groups. On the other hand, those who take free food feel uncomfortable because they might be perceived as “beggars”. Finding foodsavers in Taiwan is therefore difficult, says Simon. He feels that, in comparison with Germans, Taiwanese are shy and often lack the courage to negotiate cooperation with shop owners or collect leftover food from them.
Foodsharing is About Sustainability, not Charity
As Simon sees it, food wastage is essentially a severe environmental problem, so foodsharing should not be equated with charity, nor do foodsavers compete with disadvantaged groups for resources.
He explains that “foodsharing and charitable donations do not have a competitive relationship but an extended relationship.” “Not many people have thought about it like that, but food wastage and climate change are similar in some respect and interrelated, too. To provide more food, we are cutting forests to [provide more room for] planting crops, which in return generates greenhouse gases, but surplus food is dumped and incinerated, which creates an even greater burden for our planet. Therefore, the emphasis is on reducing wastage and not on solving the problem of the poor and underprivileged,” says Simon.
The other challenge is that the movement entirely relies on volunteers. Sometimes when a shop owner notifies the foodsavers that there are leftovers, the volunteer in charge forgets to post a notification or inform someone else, so no one shows up to pick up the food. Or, someone places food in the public fridge but does not label it with a date. Due to such lapses, some stores were no longer willing to participate after a while.
“Some people would send over things but would not post a notification on the fan page, or they would send things that were clearly past the expiry date, so we were eventually forced to toss them out,” says Halfway Café’s Yang. “We do support this movement; we don’t even mind paying the electricity fees for the public fridge, but sometimes it is a bit troublesome.”
The idealistic Simon can’t help feeling frustrated in the face of such hiccups. In the beginning, he mostly personally accompanied the volunteers to visit shop owners, but now he wants to take a step back and act as consultant, coaching volunteers on how to run the movement so that they talk with restaurants and food retailers and organize events themselves.
“Sometimes schools invite me to give a speech to promote this concept. Some shops will also contact me, but I hope that local volunteers can take over; after all I won’t be in Taiwan for good,” remarks Simon.
Start in Your Own Backyard to Boost Grassroot Movements
Having lived in Taiwan for several years now, Simon says he has come to like the friendliness of Taiwanese people a lot. However, as an advocate of environmental sustainability, Simon feels that Taiwan has still plenty of room for improvement in that regard, citing examples such as green energy and food wastage, and, given the mountains of trash that he has seen dumped in the wild on hiking trips, even the most basic task of keeping the environment clean.
“Sometimes I feel that Taiwan is really a great place, but finding inspiration on how to push for more progress is not that easy. In my field, if you want to promote sustainability or the green movement, you are probably more able to learn something in Europe,” Simon says.
He thinks that Taiwan should more aggressively push environmentally sustainable approaches, including green energy, to make the world notice Taiwan. After all, he says, Taiwanese society generally feels dejected due to tense cross-strait relations, partisan politics or the sluggish economy, all areas where a breakthrough currently seems elusive. Simon begs to ask: Why not first start with those areas where the people can improve and make progress themselves?
“People can contribute to environmental sustainability through various approaches such as food sharing, because this not only reduces food wastage, it can also help solve many other problems. Every individual can do this instead of always blaming the government,” says Simon.
“We should let people know which problems we face and the possible responses to mobilize people to participate. I like this kind of power from the grassroots.”
Translated by Susanne Ganz
Edited by Tomas Lin
CommonWealth Magazine began its advocacy of corporate social responsibility in 1994, and in the coming years since, CSR has gradually grown in importance to companies, investors and society. In recognition of that trend, CommonWealth created the website "CSR@CommonWealth" in 2017 to highlight the most forward-looking CSR visions and ideas and create a CSR platform that can help build a better world.