“Hello, I’m from 7C Kitchen, an organisation dedicated to redistributing surplus food to vulnerable people who need it most. Our restaurant is just over there. We already have three vendors collaborating with us on a regular basis. I wonder if we could work with you as well?”
Without needing to bargain or beg, a deal is normally struck in three minutes. The founder of 7C Kitchen, Hedy Yang, said, “People who work at traditional markets are very warm-hearted. However, most young people rarely shop at traditional markets and don’t know how things work here.” One time, Hedy Yang encouraged a university student to go to a traditional market to ask for surplus food. After wandering around for a long time, the student only received two bunches of vegetables, both from the same vendor.
“What’s so hard about asking? Honestly, it’s just that most people feel embarrassed to do so.” Hedy Yang half-jokingly said that the reason her skin is as thick as an elephant’s comes from her unusual working experiences.
Turning the idea of sharing what’s left into a surplus food restaurant
After graduating from a vocational high school, Hedy Yang became a website designer. However, because she felt unsatisfied working at home and not being able to socialise with people, she also chose to work at night markets, traditional markets, department stores and boutique shops.
Other positions of hers included being a director’s special assistant and manager of a café. Within seven years, she had changed between about 20 jobs and worked in all sorts of different sectors.
Once her job application at an antique auction house was accepted the day after she had been peddling coin bags worth NT $10 each at a night market. At that time, her manager told her, “In this room, raising one finger means 50 thousand, in that room 100 thousand, and in that room one million.”
Hedy Yang was surprised to learn that “there are two different worlds in the same Taiwan.” She didn’t expect that she would fall into the other world when she was 26. Hedy Yang was forced to quit her job after contracting an autoimmune disease. While recovering, she came into contact with a variety of social movements. As someone who is always thinking up new ideas, she couldn’t help but start the creative design of paper tapes printed with “no nukes”, LGBT, animal rights, marine conservation and heritage house protection themes. Later she donated part of her income to NGOs.
Having seen how poor people lead their lives, Hedy Yang also diligently practised Indian dancing and learned how to make Indian curry after recovering from her illness. She used organic vegetables to cook curry for homeless people and donated a total of 880 meals before setting up 7C Kitchen to sell meals at her office on Huamei Street in Taichung in 2016.
Because the appearance of food is very important to restaurant managers, some ingredients or surplus food tend to be discarded to maintain quality. Hedy Yang finds this very wasteful, “Every day I put a lot of effort into making curry and it would be a shame to just chuck it all out!” Therefore, she once announced on her Facebook page that all unsold curry dishes would be provided for free that day. Her post was immediately shared 276 times, even though her Facebook page had only accumulated about 100 likes before then.
Hedy Yang was pleasantly surprised by the sudden popularity of her post. She patiently browsed every single comment left by the people who had shared her post and realised that many people thought 7C Kitchen was a restaurant only selling surplus food. Instead of denying this “beautiful” misunderstanding, she accepted what people might have wrongly believed about her restaurant and said to herself, “I don’t think it is difficult to run a restaurant using surplus ingredients. I just need to ask vendors for unsold vegetables, right?”
A few days later, she put a commissioned big green bag resembling the ones used by Taiwanese postmen on the back seat of her scooter. From then on, she started to ride to nearby traditional markets around 2:00 pm every afternoon, rescuing edible food ingredients that were about to be thrown away.
Investigating the volume of surplus ingredients at traditional markets and launching a campaign to rescue vegetables
After lunch, when the traditional markets finally quieten down, there are many piles of surplus vegetables stacked up like little hills on the ground. Some fill bamboo baskets to the point of overflowing. Some are loaded on trucks ready for feeding pigs. The quiet, lonely lanes look like a graveyard of surplus food.
Even though Hedy Yang was very passionate about the whole idea of collecting surplus food, she did not recklessly rush to vegetable stalls. Instead, she observed how vendors select their produce, what they throw away and how much is wasted. She waited until the vendors all went home before she took a closer look at the buckets of surplus food. Sometimes she even looked through the rubbish piles. “Look at that, many edible vegetables are left in there. I believe that vendors don’t mean to be wasteful. They just can’t sell the products tomorrow so have to reluctantly dump them today.”
Every two to three days, she came to check the markets. During her regular visits, she discovered that there are many reasons behind food waste. For example, the majority of vendors in traditional markets do not have refrigerators with them, which means that many farm products wither in the open-air temperature in just one day. Many vegetable vendors always order a huge box of produce simply because it is cheaper to do so or because they want to create an image of abundance in their stalls. But if these farm products cannot be sold within one day, lose their shiny, fresh appearance or get slightly bruised, they cannot avoid the fate of being discarded at the end of the day.
This phenomenon is especially evident in the case of organic and spray-free produce, of which customers have higher expectations than the sprayed equivalent. In consideration of this, the first vendor that Hedy Yang spoke to was one selling environmentally-friendly produce, who happily agreed to help her. Even though she was later refused by many other vendors with similar businesses, she did not give up and went back again. Only in the second round of negotiations did Hedy Yang realise that the reason why vendors refused her was because they did not know how to categorise their surplus food. After Hedy Yang asked them to pack everything all together, the parties could finally agree to collaborate.
Although the process of collecting vegetables is fairly smooth, vendors occasionally give her ingredients that are not suitable for cooking, such as the outer hard leaves of cabbages. Hedy Yang quick-wittedly asks them, “Madam, I don’t know how cook these ingredients. Could you teach me?” Vendors embarrassedly scratch their heads and cannot explain. As expected, they do not provide these inedible ingredients the next time.
Apart from inedible parts like these, Hedy Yang collects almost everything. In a trip of 20 minutes, she can bring back enough food to feed more than 30 people. She collects all kinds of ingredients, including fresh food like mushrooms, fennel, chayote shoots, wolfberry leaves and radish, as well as processed food like fried bean curd, crystal dumplings, meat balls, sweet dumplings and broth.
But even if she has got all she needs, there comes another problem. “In comparison to in Taiwan, supermarkets in other countries pack their produce very neatly, which makes it easy to sort. What we harvest from the traditional markets here needs a lot of time sorting before we can actually use it.” Fortunately, her neighbours are very passionate about her cause and often offer to help her out. Even some professional chefs are willing to cook for her. Witnessing how everything has developed with momentum from the local community, Hedy Yang has decided to stop selling meals and focus on an evening surplus food handout.
All sorts of surplus food can be magically turned into delicacies
7C Kitchen gives away 15 numbered tickets every day except Monday. Seven to ten dishes made from surplus food are provided at 6:30 pm in the evening.
The preparation time is as short as four hours between the collection of vegetables and the serving of dishes. Therefore, Hedy Yang starts thinking about cooking methods as soon as she sees the ingredients at markets. When she goes back to the restaurant, she also brainstorms with volunteers. If they still cannot think of an appropriate cooking method, they ask the opinions of their family members or neighbours. Hedy Yang smilingly said, “Actually, experts are just a blink away.”
Some pickle cucumber in soy sauce and use the meat left on chicken bone breasts to make “meatballs with pickled cucumber”. Some use sweet corn, straw mushrooms and taro to make green curry. Some use shrimp heads and onions to make soup stock, which is later used to fry rice vermicelli with pumpkin. Some use eggs that are too small or have very thin shells to bake cakes of all sorts of flavours, including black bean, banana and hazelnut. There have also been mesh potatoes, taro balls, potato omelettes, and salty pancakes with dried plum and pumpkin, all made from surplus food ingredients.
As for those ingredients that have an appearance too damaged to be presented on the dining table, there are also many ways to deal with them. For example, an overly ripe cabbage and its core can be slowly boiled into vegetarian stock; spinach can be cooked with curry leaves; and fruit can be made into jam or juice. Hedy Yang explained that fruit are most fragrant and juicy right before they get too ripe. Green leaves that are slightly rotten are most suitable for making Indian curry.
The mixed quality of surplus food ingredients does not bother Hedy Yang, who even said, “Most people think surplus food can’t be delicious, which is not at all true! Half of what we eat every day is half organic or non-toxic. And my biggest occupational injury is putting on seven kilograms!”
After the fame of “surplus food sharing” had spread, 7C Kitchen started to see frequenters bringing their own food to share and to receive donations of fresh food, pre-prepared foods and snacks from different restaurants, farms and supermarkets. 7C Kitchen generously shares all of what it receives with people, even allowing them to bring home extra food in doggy bags.
What do you need to do if you want to bring some leftovers home? You can either put a donation into a black box, which means that no one else can see how much you give. Or you can contribute your labour by helping sort vegetables, washing up dishes or cleaning the restaurant. Or you can barter for what you want to take home with a plate of food you bring along.
However, the above-mentioned is not enough to sustain the business. Therefore, 7C Kitchen also sells lunch boxes especially prepared for office workers, who only need to pay NT $1,000 for 15 meals. In addition, 7C Kitchen also uses fresh ingredients to make ready-to-eat curry packs, which include Thai Green Curry Chicken, Coconut Banana Curry and Lebanese Cold Curry. In the future, if it can secure a source of surplus food, 7C Kitchen will also produce ready-to-eat curry packs using surplus ingredients clearly labelled on the packaging.
A shared economy helps create a friendly and lively community
Today, 7C Kitchen only collects surplus food from three vendors, and so far has not planned to expand the source of its surplus ingredients. “It’s not that I don’t want more, it’s that I dare not. You can clearly see that what I collect in one day can feed 30 to 40 people. I wouldn’t be able to process it all if I got more surplus ingredients.”
Hedy Yang had only just managed to make ends meet before she moved on to the next milestone. After 7C Kitchen’s one-year anniversary, she opened a restaurant that runs all day and is the first in Taiwan to use surplus ingredients. This restaurant can accommodate 70 people and is also a sheltered workshop for ex-prisoners, disadvantaged aboriginal people or middle-age unemployed. For the moment, ingredients used for making breakfast and lunch are primarily freshly-bought ones, with one dish made from surplus food reserved free for disadvantaged people. As for dinner, all dishes are prepared with surplus ingredients for people who are happy to donate whatever they like.
Not only that, Hedy Yang has single-handedly established the Harendo Social Project Lab, which encompasses the communication of social issues, a second-hand clothing swap, livelihood assistance for homeless people and the trap-neuter-return (TNR) program for stray cats and dogs. She hopes that a shared economy community can be built in Taichung within five years.
All of Hedy Yang’s efforts are simply because she is willing to be a “stubborn person” who keeps trying to build a good life for disadvantaged and struggling people.