Lower waste, slimmer waists

This post is part of a collaboration between Climate Tracker and Young Reporters for the Environment. This article is the winner of the 2019 competition for the Litter Less Campaign, 19-25 years old. Author of the article: Taha Q Joher. Country: India.

Fighting food wastage, one grain at a time.

The Dawoodi Bohra community is a small, almost insignificant subsect of the Shia branch of Islam. Their population, although well dispersed all around the world, is approximately just 1.5 million people, making up less than one-thousandth of all Muslims worldwide. This predominantly Gujarati business community, however, is making a difference with its incredible innovation that is having a resounding impact on an endemic that is becoming all too relevant with the increasing global economic progress – food wastage.

The Bohras generally eat in a group (seven or eight while in community halls), sitting in a circular fashion around a Thaal, a large steel platter. While at home, it enables the family to spend quality time together and at community halls after every congregation in the Masjid, it helps friends catch up with each other over meals. Whatever their geographical location, the greatest feature of the Bohra community is their uniformity and their strong ties to their culture, which do not seem to fade away even after assimilating into other foreign societies. So across the world, the Thaal is put on a Safra, a mat on the floor. Food is served on the Thaal at the beginning, and additional servings are provided by volunteers who make several trips to and from the kitchens. Generally, food is served on a full-plate basis, and when the members are unable to finish the food, they signal to a volunteer and return the food. Bohra meals usually comprise of a combination of chicken and a rice-based main course, with a sweet dish to complement it. Due to hygiene issues, items returned to the kitchens tend to be uneaten by anyone else and they end up going to waste. Although the amount of food wasted per Thaal may not be very significant, over the hundreds and thousands of Thaals in cities across the world, the waste accumulates. It accumulates dangerously. The Bohra community is relatively well-off, so such a thing is easy to go by unnoticed.

But it didn’t go unnoticed. There was prompt action, something that is really rare when it comes to people preventing wastage of any kind. Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, the spiritual head of the community, came up with an initiative to completely eliminate food wastage by implementing the ‘Preserve every grain’ campaign, wherein it was made mandatory for everyone to finish each and every item that is on their Thaal, down to the last grain of rice. The move was hugely popular, as it was accepted by most people straight away. It has been around for a couple of years now, and it has become a cultural norm in the community, and it is often pointed out by the other members of the Thaal if any members are wasting even the tiniest amount of food morsels. People were instructed to only take as much as they needed from the volunteers who would be walking around with plates, and finish whatever they took. Essentially, the system allowed eaters to enjoy the benefit of an all-you-can-eat type meal, while also ensuring that there is none of the disastrous wastage that generally occurs with unlimited food.

In cities with smaller Bohra populations (less than 1000), wastage is estimated to have decreased by more than 60% and it has become nearly non-existent now, since the time the campaign was started. The Bohra populations in larger cities such as Mumbai, Pune, Chennai and Kolkata are significantly larger so community halls are decentralised, with multiple halls across the city and hence management is different. Wastage here is estimated to decrease lesser on a proportionate basis, but since the sheer volume of food is so high, the overall saving is highly significant in the larger scheme of things. There is a special committee set up to ensure that the order of cleanliness and non-wastage is maintained in the Thaals, and if indeed there are any grains of rice left at the end of the meal, they are collected by the members of this committee and they feed the grains to the birds around them.

A pleasing effect of this campaign is that the community has also subconsciously dealt with another issue that has been plaguing society recently – over-eating. Obesity rates in India have been higher than ever before, and it isn’t surprising. After all, a bulging physique is often seen as an indicator of wealth. The Bohras, however, have smartly avoided the misconception.

Portion sizes have indeed come down and people are eating healthier and just the right amount, both at the halls and at home. I have personally noticed this change within me as I only fill my plate with small amounts and eat only as much as I can. I have also spoken to people across all age groups and they feel that their body is adjusting well to the change. They feel more active, less bloated and are less likely to feel lazy and lethargic in their daily life. A workforce that is happy and well-fed is the most beneficial for society- economically speaking. Productivity is greater with the increased focus, and there is less absenteeism due to lower risk of diseases.

The value and importance of proper nutrition has been drilled into all the present generations. I personally feel this is on par with the Japanese tradition of making kids clean their own classrooms because Bohra children know that every grain is priceless, and in a world where millions are uncertain about where their next meal is coming from, one should not take this luxury of having food on their plate for granted.

Author of the article: Taha Q Joher. Country: India.