It’s Friday the 13th and it’s shaping up to be another good day to rescue food. In a compact warehouse in a nondescript industrial park near the central fresh food market in Johannesburg, chef and manager Jane Gqozo and two volunteer chefs, Sibongile Mthombeni and Rose Ndlovu, wait for the next delivery.
It arrives, a large bakkie filled to capacity with boxes and boxes of baby marrows with a smattering of boxes of yellow patty pans to break the green. Quickly, the three women start unpacking the boxes of food, stacking them with care on the wooden pallets that hug the walls.
There is a promise that the next bakkie load will be full of cabbages.
The trio are part of an organisation called Chefs with Compassion. The organisation was formed in April, shortly after the lockdown came into effect on March 27 and when it became apparent that the precautions taken to curb the Covid-19 coronavirus brought with them hunger on a terrible scale.
What would become Chefs with Compassion began with a collaboration between Nosh Food Rescue’s Hanneke van Linge and Thava Indian Restaurant in Norwood. Together, they began turning surplus rescued produce that would otherwise have gone to waste into flavoursome, nutritious curries and stews.
Van Linge said: “In our six years of operation, we’ve come to understand the vital role that the restaurant industry plays in our food systems. In a country like South Africa, which is marked by both a high-calibre hospitality sector and hunger, we have to find innovative ways to work together and find real solutions to our social plights.
“A project like Chefs with Compassion has long been part of our bigger picture, and the current lockdown situation realised and scaled our pilot project with Chef Philippe Frydman and Thava Restaurant faster than we anticipated.
“We now have solid proof of concept – it is a powerful and efficient way to distribute delicious, nourishing food to where it is needed most.”
During Chefs with Compassion’s first week of operation, there was one restaurant producing 1 750 meals; eight weeks later, there were 32 kitchens preparing 63 597 meals. Although we are now in lockdown level 1, the need is not diminishing and 31 kitchens are preparing an average of 26 741 meals, with many now also putting together food parcels – all from rescued food.
During the first eight weeks, Chefs with Compassion received 300.5 tons of produce – that’s about the weight of 50 average adult elephants. Of that, 56% was rescued from the fresh food market, while 27% was from donations and another 17% from small-scale farmers.
The nonprofit organisation was scaled up by a collaboration between the SA Chefs Association, Nosh Food Rescue, Slow Food International, Slow Food Chefs’ Alliance SA and Strategic Public Relations, with the HTA School of Culinary Art stepping in to provide a venue for their “share house”, as they like to call it.
The teams from these organisations mobilised their networks and supply chains to start saving, collecting, distributing and cooking food for communities in need.
They reached out to community leaders and spread the word and, throughout the months of lockdown, they have grown and expanded to include 31 hubs that collect food from their warehouse each week.
While we wait for that anticipated bakkie full of cabbages, Pastor Adriaan Breda of the Army of Yahweh tells me about his association with Chefs with Compassion and how his organisation saw the problem of hunger grow as economic hardship set in during lockdown.
Breda, who has been with the Army of Yahweh for nine years, works in Eldorado Park. The rescued food he collects from Chefs with Compassion’s warehouse twice a week equates to 1 500 meals. He and his team feed between 400 and 500 people three times a week, most of them either elderly, disabled or children.
“I have farming skills and I am sharing them too,” he says, explaining that their other interventions in the area include creating food gardens, which he hopes will encourage neighbours to barter their spinach for another’s beetroot, for example.
UNDERSTANDING AND COMPASSION
“We come from there and we understand hardship. We have compassion for people.”
He tells me with conspiratorial glee about a phone call he got from Chefs with Compassion in the previous week, inviting him to come and collect 80kg of donated chicken. He says it was a wonderful treat, as they seldom get protein to add to the food they provide for people.
He’s a favourite of the staff at the share house, although, as the day wears on, it seems they favour everyone who arrives, and there are always warm greetings and laughter.
Meanwhile, on the share house floor, the pallets are piling up with cabbages delivered by another bakkie as Nonhlanhla “Noni” Godile, owner of Noni’s Home Skillz Dish, arrives in a flurry of happy chatter. She says she’s in a bit of a rush because she’s catering a lunch in two hours, but wanted to make her food collection so that she could deliver the food to her team in Troyeville.
When she spots the bags of baby brinjals on one of the pallets, she shrieks with delight and tells us in scrumptious detail how to make them into stew.
“I am an organic, Pan-African vegan chef,” she explains, showing us the mushroom paneer she’s made for her lucky lunch guests. She explains that she doesn’t cook as much as she used to for the community around her. Instead, she’s training the women from the community to do it.
“I have six soup kitchens, and the people who used to come and eat in them now cook in them,” she says.
FOOD SHOULD HEAL
She says that food preparation and feeding people is not simply a practical act.
“Cook and your heart must be happy because food should heal.”
Once Godile has driven off, loaded up for the week, Ndlovu, who has been working at the share house since October, tells me how, with her studies stalled – she’s in her third year of chef training – she decided to help out.
“The little bit of experience you can get, just use it,” she says. She goes on to say, though, that the real testimony is of “how many people are being fed. It is great!”
Fellow student volunteer Mthombeni agrees and says that it was indeed difficult at first, “but then I was motivated by the people who go to sleep with empty stomachs. I’ve learnt that you don’t need to throw anything away.”
They both agree that this is their way of giving back, while Ndlovu adds: “It is so nice to do something for people we don’t know.”
Gqozo, who has been a volunteer since July and started in her full-time warehouse manager role this month, says we should all think twice about our food.
“Before you throw it away, try to save it. There’s someone out there who can use it.”
The rescued food that is no longer fit for human consumption is collected by a local pig farmer, so there really is no such thing as waste in Chefs with Compassion’s vocabulary.
It’s time for the next pick-up. Chef and farmer Tumi Mnguni reverses his bakkie into the warehouse. His farm is near Fochsville, on the way to Potchefstroom, but he comes twice a week to collect food for the communities around him. Mnguni has two chefs who help him to make food for the 2 000 people he feeds.
THE NEED IS APPARENT
Mnguni has been feeding people in his community for about five months, after he saw the need became increasingly apparent.
Once he is loaded up and away, another two bakkies pull up to unload yet more rescued food. This time, the smell of fresh coriander fills the air, as boxes and boxes of the herb – looking delicious – are unpacked, along with more green beans and boxes of spring onions, as well as some multicoloured carrots.
There’s also dill among the loads, and Ndlovu says she suddenly really feels like dill mayonnaise (they sometimes get donations of dry goods and everyone who comes in on that Friday is taking away a bottle of mayonnaise and a bottle of lemon and herb marinade).
With the latest loads unpacked, it’s time again for the next collection. Zizwe Kheswa represents the Soweto-based nonprofit organisation Rofhiwa Africa and he is collecting for the nine centres his organisation feeds.
“Food parcels are better and the women asked if we can do food parcels,” he says.
While he’s loading up his share of today’s haul – cabbage, beans, spring onions, cucumbers, baby marrows and herbs – he tells me his secret behind knowing what to cook.
“I ask here,” he says, gesturing to the staff.
“They give you tips every time you collect,” which is the added service of having chefs on the floor.
As Kheswa sets off fully loaded, Gqozo must start phoning her network to ensure that all the food that has been rescued on the day can be collected. It’s the weekend and the team doesn’t want to see anything that has been saved once already go to waste. A flurry of phone calls and text messages later, and a selection of those not on the roster to collect today get a windfall and will collect another load of food for their communities.
On this day, Chefs with Compassion has saved 1 258kg of food, which was used for 14 500 meals and food parcels.
. Join City Press on December 2 at 11am for a webinar titled There’s No Such Thing As Waste: A Compassionate Approach to the Food Chain. Register here
. To donate to Chefs with Compassion, visit their website here