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'People want everything on the menu on their plate'

By Syed Firdaus Ashraf
Last updated on: April 13, 2017 09:37 IST
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'The government is not insisting that customers must eat a certain quantity only.'
Customers can ask for extra portions.'
'It is dictatorial, but we welcome it because it is one step towards ending food waste.'

'If a person can eat only two prawns, why should he or she be served six? If a person eats two idlis, why serve four! It's wastage of food and also money people pay for something that they don't eat.'

Ram Vilas Paswan, the Union minister of consumer affairs, food and public distribution, raised fears of a nanny State when he said the government would ask restaurants to specify portion sizes after Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised concerns of food wastage during his 'Mann Ki Baat' this month.

A G Padmanabhan feels Paswan's decision makes sense.

Padmanabhan -- who founded an organisation with an aim to serve untouched, excess food in restaurants and weddings to the needy -- speaks to's Syed Firdaus Ashraf.

The government is setting limits to food portions in restaurants and hotels. How would you respond?

It's a welcome move. There should be steps taken to reduce food waste in India.

India is the second largest food producing country. 

We produce 10.8 per cent of the world's food requirements, but on the other hand, we are on the 97th position in the world on the hunger index.

That's 97 out of 118 countries, which means we are severely affected by hunger.

This proves that there is a large quantity of food wasted after harvest and at the customer-retail end.

How does your organisation tackle food waste?

We ensure that excess food does not get wasted.

We don't let that food go to landfills (dustbins). I run an organisation. We collect untouched, excess food from marriage halls, restaurants and parties and give it to needy people.

Don't you think it is wrong for the government to decide how much someone should eat?

They are not insisting that customers must eat a certain quantity only. Customers can ask for extra portions.

But the portion of food is being decided by the government.

We deal with food served during marriages and we have found out that even if a guest does not like to eat sweets it is still served on his plate.

The sweet is part of the package (menu). So even if the guest has not eaten or touched the sweet it is still going into the dustbin.

That untouched sweet is not going to be served to the next guest.

Similarly in a restaurant, you can be served two prawns and if you feel like eating more, you can always ask for two more.

Should citizens self-regulate food portions to minimise waste?

Law enforcement will never work in a country like India in a case like this.

We must take a small step to make people think about this issue.

In marriages, for example, if you have a guest list of 1,000 people, then at least 80 to 100 plates of untouched excess food goes into the dustbin. That's just untouched food. Leftovers on a plate are a different story.

The government is trying to control leftovers on a plate by serving smaller portions.

Customers as well as guests at a marriage function can ask for more.

Culturally, do we leave food on our plates?

It is not culture, but greed.

People are greedy -- they want everything on the menu on their plate.

Restaurateurs or hosts at a wedding take pride in putting each and every dish on the menu on the guest or customer's plate.

They don't worry about whether people can eat it all. It is this pride that is cultural.

Pride means we do not consider how much food we waste.

Would the needy accept food left over on a plate? The concept of jhoota is intrinsic to Indians. How would you tackle this?

The needy will not accept leftovers from a plate. We only pick up and serve untouched food from the caterer.

An economy without food wastage is your motto. Is it possible in India?

Right now we are working in eight cities in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

In Coimbatore, there are 150 marriage halls and 180 to 190 hotel and restaurant chains.

Every year there is a possibility of recovering at least 9 lakh (900,000) meals.

This is untouched excess food which goes in the dustbin.

Today, we are recovering 29 per cent, which means we are serving around 3 lakh (300,000) plates every year to hunger spots.

Every city has a hunger spot -- people living in slums or rag-pickers -- who eat just one meal a day.

We do not serve the same people every day. We serve this food on rotation.

Don't you feel this concept of free food encourages beggars and lazy people who do not want to work?

I am not talking about beggars.

For example, a group of rag-pickers earn Rs 60 to Rs 70 on an average per day. They will not be able to afford education or medication or shelter with this income.

But if we provide leftover food from a wedding or a corporate party, which has high nutrition content and at least 5 to 6 varieties, it will take care of their calorie count.

This will not encourage begging as we do not serve food to beggars and drunkards.

But this free food concept encourages beggars and drunkards...

What you say is true. This is part of our culture called Anna Daan (donate food).

It is part of Indian culture. I am not talking about that.

If I give free food at one particular place every day, then people will wait at that same spot forever without working.

Who do you serve your food to then?

People don't know (in advance) where we serve food.

How do you make money?

This is social service. We are not here to make money.

We work on donations from friends and others.

We incur a cost of 60 paisa to 70 paisa per plate.

Don't you think this proposed government order is dictatorial?

It is dictatorial, but we welcome it because it is one step towards ending food waste.

If you know you cannot eat two dishes, yet have it on your plate and not eat it, you are doing injustice (to food).

But that is my choice. I am paying for it. How will I know how much I can eat even before I begin my meal?

That is the mistake people make.

If you like the food, tell the waiter to serve you more. Why waste food?

Can India become a no-food waste nation?

Yes, it is possible. Food is wasted in three ways.

First, preparation residues. This is organic waste that is generated while cutting and cooking vegetables. This organic waste must not go into dustbins.

Second, plate leftovers.

And third, untouched food which is fit for human consumption.

It is this plate leftovers which we want to control even if it is of a small quantity. It must not go into the dustbin.

Similarly, there must be an alternative to using preparation residue.

In many religions there is an emphasis on not wasting food.

All religious books like the Quran and Bhagwad Gita say wasting food is equal to disrespecting God.

In Indian marriages you will find 100 varieties of food. We take pride in serving it.

But nowadays, people do not eat their full at a wedding. People eat naam ke vaastey (just for the sake of it).

In the USA, the Good Samaritan Law protects people who are in this business.

If a similar law is enacted, more people will be willing to donate food from restaurants and weddings. They will do it without worry.

We need a law which motivates people to (donate) edible food instead of wasting it.

For example, a vendor will throw 100 unsold oranges in the dustbin rather than give it away. He knows a day before that the oranges are going to rot and he is not going to get buyers, but he will not risk giving it away free.

He does not donate it because he fears someone may fall ill and he will be in trouble. This is why we need a Good Samaritan Law in India.

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