[OP-ED] Surplus food: A weapon against hunger and climate change

The amount of food waste generated in our society is a grave concern. It is almost unconscionable what volumes of perfectly edible food are discarded – especially in a country like ours, where such massive problems of hunger and malnutrition exist.

In fact, a recent study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that 1.6 billion tons of food are thrown away globally every year, with that number projected to reach a staggering 2 billion tons by 2030. While the social impact is a significant consideration, there are serious environmental consequences as this wasted food finds its way to landfill sites which are reaching capacity in South Africa, where it decays, generating vast amounts of methane gas and carbon monoxide, worsening climate change.

At the same time, millions of people do not have enough to eat. NGO Food Forward estimates that one-third of all food produced in South Africa goes to landfills, while 14-million people go hungry. This is a problem that cannot and should not be left unchecked. If we are in a position to address this, and we do nothing, we become complicit in the destruction of our planet and in the effective starvation of our people.

For quick service restaurant (QSR) groups to do their bit in changing this state of affairs, requires a systematic change in the way we do business. It is not enough for us to invite NGOs to collect surplus food from the back door of restaurants - we need to integrate surplus food management systems into the full value chain of our operations.
This requires new strategies, systems and partnerships, which is something we embrace and have realigned our business to deliver.

When repurposing surplus food becomes part of the business process, it becomes scalable. Such a system can be rolled out across hundreds of similar businesses, and the impact becomes enormous. This is how large QSR groups can really start making a difference – to society, to our people and to the environment. On an individual level, the long-term benefits of sufficient protein in the diet cannot be emphasised enough as the body uses protein to build stronger bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood.

This has been our learning at KFC with the launch of our Harvest programme, where, as a result of our strict internal hold times in our restaurants, we find ourselves with surplus chicken. In addition, our distribution centres can also find themselves holding pallets of unused food products and ingredients.

This food is by no means expired, it is perfectly for and safe for human consumption. For some time now, it has seriously concerned us as good food was effectively going to waste for want of a dedicated process to get it to the people who need it most.

So, in 2015, we set about fixing this by changing the business process in our restaurants to accommodate Harvest, our surplus food programme while maintaining our rigorous internal food safety procedures. We then launched an ambitious internal training programme to get our team members on board, so that they too, share in on our vision.

We then deepened our partnership with our distribution supplier Digistics, by tapping into existing processes to redistribute surplus food. The new system involves hygienically freezing products that have reached their strict internal hold times, then transporting them under controlled conditions to the nearest Digistics warehouse, where they are collected by food redistributing NGO Food Forward for beneficiary organisations.

Following on from more than a year of operational tweaks, systems engineering and testing before we were ready to begin distributing food to beneficiaries - we launched Harvest through our KFC-owned restaurants, and later to franchisees. By the end of 2018, we expect to have over 200 participating restaurants on board.

To date, we have donated about 326,058 kg of surplus food, which has been used to make more than a million meals for about 600 beneficiary organisations across South Africa.

Our key learnings from this process is that there is a need to have responsible business practices in place to implement a surplus food programme, and the importance of getting team members on board from an early stage.

Once KFC franchisees, business owners and team members saw the difference it makes in providing nutrient-rich meals to people in need as well as the environment their commitment became unwavering. They became the real drivers of the programme.

Another crucial lesson is how we deliberately integrated the Harvest solution into our business operations. We firmly believe that it’s not something that can be outsourced to an external, third-party provider. Rather, it must live and breathe at every level of our organisation.

Another lesson which I believe has also been key in driving Harvest effectively, is to build partnerships with existing suppliers in logistics and distribution to ensure speed of delivery, consistency of operations and reach in terms of how we get food into the hands of people who benefit from it directly.

We firmly believe that other quick service restaurant groups should be looking to similar processes and how they can adapt their businesses to get involved in creating a social movement that can address surplus food and the hunger. We are open to sharing our methods with any groups who are interested in implementing this initiative in their own businesses. There is much room for improvement, but so much scope to do good.

If we implement programmes like this as an industry, repurposing much of our waste, we can start to make a positive, material difference in our communities, our country and our environment.

Thabisa Mkhwanazi is KFC Africa’s director for public affairs.