Jozi chefs rescue fruit and veg destined for the bin to feed those in need
A pallet of sad-looking gem squash is piled in the corner of the Johannesburg Fresh Produce Market. Their once glossy green shells are now dulled, cracked in some spots and the hint of yellow indicates their best days are behind them.
These vegetables are a fallout from the rigorous lockdown imposed in the last week of March. Due to oversupply, second-grade quality or lack of demand, they are destined for the tip. In fact, almost a third of what we produce or procure in terms of fresh produce ends up in the bin — some of it still perfectly safe to eat.
So what if we rescued that food and used it to feed those in need?
Almost a third what we produce or procure in terms of fresh produce ends up in the bin — some of it still perfectly safe to eat
This thought inspired the creation of Chefs with Compassion, a charitable group of like-minded volunteers and organisations who wanted to make a difference during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many of the volunteers are out-of-work chefs who, together with members of the SA Chefs Association and Slow Food Johannesburg, congregate at the HTA School of Culinary Art in Randburg, Joburg.
Most of the students of the school may be housebound, but as the new headquarters of Chefs with Compassion it's a hive of activity. Volunteers, under the leadership of chef Stephen Billingham, former president of the association, prep thousands of meals for those less fortunate.
Each meal starts with the farmer, who planted seeds and through the first weeks of lockdown saw demand for their produce drop drastically as businesses were forced to close and informal traders were banned from selling their wares. The result is tons of fruit and veg left unsold.
Enter Nosh Food Rescue, who together with a very energetic “bakkie brigade”, plead and cajole the fresh produce market agents to donate the unsold food before delivering it to Chefs with Compassion HQ — like those gem squash I mentioned earlier.
Here, teams of critical-eyed volunteers sort through the mountain of fresh produce, both rescued and donated. The gem squash is separated and organised; what is not fit for human consumption is set aside for a pig farmer.
Young culinary student volunteers pack the gem squash into a box along with other ingredients. This time it's some about-to-expire sweet potato fries, a box of perfect yet unevenly sized button mushrooms, as well as bags of carrots and beetroot donated by a supermarket.
A scrawled sign designates the destination: one of about 30 satellite kitchens in restaurants which, if it were not for lockdown restrictions, would be hosting paying guests.
Notes are taken, data entered into a computer, and endless WhatsApp calls add to the flurry as the produce is dispatched to hubs as far away as Hammanskraal, the Vaal and the East Rand.
Once it arrives at a restaurant, the chef patron (let's call him Tom) and his team once again sort through the produce and decide their dish of the day is going to be a Moroccan vegetable tagine.
The gem squash are steamed while the accompanying vegetables are peeled and chopped, sautéed in olive oil and with a melange of fragrant spices slowly simmered. As the golden stew cooks, Tom adds a couple of cans of tomato and fresh herbs from his own stock. Likewise, the fluffy steamed couscous is from his own pantry.
As Tom and his crew ladle the tagine into takeaway containers, one of the charitable beneficiaries who will distribute this hearty meal to those in need arrives. The 200 takeaway meals are packed in crates, loaded in a car and sped off to be distributed to a queue of hungry people within 45 minutes.
Eight weeks since its inception, Chefs With Compassion has rescued and cooked enough food to feed 62,000 people.
The phone rings at the Chefs With Compassion HQ - "Can we send a truck? There are four pallets of loose green beans that need collecting now or they're going in the bin..."
• To donate, volunteer or for more information, visit chefswithcompassion.org.za.
The author of this article, chef Arnold Tanzer, is the chief cook and bottle washer for Food on the Move, which up until lockdown was feeding TV and movie crews across the nation. Besides watching his vegetables grow, he is currently cooking for his better half and two hungry teenagers. He's also helping to feed those in need through his involvement with Chefs With Compassion and keeping the hospitality industry connected with Our Social Kitchen, a project that allows professionals to virtually share their dishes.