Pandemic shows need for food philantrophy
AUNG WIN Most people in Myanmar may not be familiar with the name James Beard. First and foremost, he was a great humanitarian. He became a legend in the food world against all odds. A year after his death, a former student launched a foundation in his honour. Since 1990, the foundation has given out annual awards including book awards, journalism awards and broadcast media awards. In 2018, the James Beard Foundation changed the award's rules to be more inclusive, to fight race and gender disparities.
The James Beard Humanitarian of the Year award is given to an individual or organisation in the food business who has made significant contributions to better the lives of others and society at large. The 2020 humanitarian award went to Zero Foodprint (ZFP), co-founded by Myanmar American Anthony Myint and his wife Karen Leibowitz. ZFP's mission is to help farmers adopt renewable farming practices that improve soil health. Healthy soil can pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and too much carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is causing global warming. ZFP has 52 member restaurants located throughout the US and across the globe. These restaurants charge their customers 1% of the bill to give grants to the farmers.
The practice of adding an extra charge to the total bill for a charitable cause is not new. This way, preparing food can both be a labour of love and a profitable business. It is quite common in some countries for restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores to provide patrons the option to donate for food banks or to buy a bag full of groceries for a family in need. Around holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, grocery stores and department stores often serve as food donation centres, collecting nonperishable foods in marked bins. In America, it is also common for restaurants and grocery stores to donate leftovers or expired food to local food banks, homeless shelters and low-income communities. Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), for example, regularly donates unsold food to food banks across the US.
Restaurants in Myanmar can learn a lot from their American counterparts and pioneers like Anthony Myint. Myanmar's food industry should minimise food waste by donating leftover foods to vulnerable populations. In some bread-eating cultures, it is almost a sin to throw away leftover bread. There, people would leave bread in bags hanging on fences or simply placed on top of walls for others to take.
In Myanmar culture, if someone gives you even a handful of rice; you are indebted to that person for life. Supply chain disruptions and panic buying are driving up food prices. On top of that, loss of jobs, incomes and a decline in the remittances have had a big impact on the poor. According to the World Bank, Covid-19, conflict and climate changes will alter the profile of the global poor. The new poor are likely to be more urban and more engaged in informal services and manufacturing. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates that food insecurity has risen in Yangon Region, despite the government's cash transfers support. The proportion of mothers with inadequate diets has steadily increased from 30% in JuneJuly, to 53% in September-October.
Lately, mass layoffs in the garment sector have dominated the headlines. Some of the female workers are primary breadwinners for their families. Besides food expenditures, they need money to pay the rent, buy medications and for other expenses. Plus, social norms often dictate that women and girls should eat last and least, so the Covid-19 pandemic is making food insecurity worse for them. Informal workers represent over 80% of the total workforce in Myanmar, so food aid will help them stay at home and thus help break the chain of infection. Covid-19-related hunger may well kill more people than direct infection. Furthermore, undernutrition increases the risk of mortality from Covid-19 and other diseases.
In reality, vulnerable groups need food aid on a regular basis. In Yangon, restaurants can donate food in the over-populated Hlaing Tharyar Township or in the poverty-stricken South Dagon Township. A lot of families there still worry about their next meal.
In recent years, the number of eateries has grown in Yangon; from roadside teashops to high-end restaurants. Restaurants in Myanmar are best positioned to assist communities in the midst of this pandemic, so they must take inspirations from other countries and cultures. Philanthropy is now needed more than ever, and since Myanmar is one of the most generous countries in the world, together with the food industry, individual citizens can help their neighbours.
Dr Paul Farmer, another great humanitarian once said, "If someone else is hungry, that is a spiritual problem." Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are coming up and they are about giving back to the community. This holiday season, give the gift of food. Let us all embrace the spirit and legacy of James Beard.
AUNG WIN Aung Win is a US-based global health scientist focusing on Myanmar.