People who do not have a home to go to are generally called “homeless”, which is a word coined by two Americans, Robert Hayes and Mitch Snyder, in 1987. The reason they chose “home” instead of “house” is that people living on the streets are not only deprived of a house, but also of a sense of connectedness with others.
This sense of isolation is particularly felt in the city. For example, one fifth of homeless people in Taiwan live in Taipei. They are often seen gathering near Taipei Main Station and Longshan Temple, where, unfortunately, they can be faced with contempt from residents. Once a councillor even tried to ask the city government to remove them. Exclusion like this may be a little similar to that in the “Stone Soup” folk story.
Legend goes that, a long time ago, a group of French soldiers, feeling thirsty and hungry, stopped by a village to ask for food from the villagers. To their surprise, the soldiers found that all the villagers hid their food, fearing that the soldiers would not earn their keep. An idea came to a soldier’s mind and he went to tell the villagers: “We can make a pot of soup out of a stone. Would you like to try it?”
The soldiers began to cook a stone, murmuring “it would be even nicer if we could add some potatoes”. Hearing this, the villagers suspiciously brought some ingredients over to them. Before long, quite unknowingly, the villagers had helped the soldiers cook up a pot of stew, and the misunderstanding between them was resolved.
Today, a similar story is starting to unfold in Taipei City.
Collecting surplus food from city dwellers and reproducing the “Stone Soup” legend
In March 2014, a large number of people stormed parliament house and occupied it for 23 days, protesting the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement between Taiwan and China. During the mass demonstration, all kinds of donations continually arrived at the protest site, but much of the donated food was surplus and then discarded.
At one point, a homeless person walked into the protest site to ask for food, but was immediately refused. Chu Kuan-chen, Wu Yen-de and Chang Shu-huai witnessed how he was treated. Even though they all felt deeply sorry for him, they did not have the opportunity to say anything at the time. That night, after a serious discussion with the volunteers who were in charge of donated materials, they took a box of donated food to Longshan Temple to share with the many homeless people there.
In fact, these three young people were very nervous, worrying that the homeless people would take more than they needed or that there might be a fight over the stuffed buns. To their surprise, everyone behaved themselves and waited in a queue for food. Some people even kept some food over for their friends who had already fallen asleep before the handout.
After this experience, the three young people realised that homeless people are not greedy or rude and often love to share with others. Food is also an excellent medium to bring people closer, because we are often in a more relaxed mood when we eat.
As a result, these three young people started a food donation campaign called “Do You A Flavor”, inviting the public to donate surplus, fresh ingredients they had at home, just like in the “Stone Soup” legend. They also borrowed a kitchen for cooking, where they prepared almost 80 serves of congee the first time they used it, handing the food out near Taipei Main Station.
More and more people started to support this campaign. Some donated ingredients and seasonings, some lent out fridges and kitchenware. Professional chefs helped with food preparation. Several NGOs recommended that they should choose soft, easily-chewable food in case some of the homeless people had dental problems. Therefore, a variety of fruit and vegetables and meat products that the homeless might not often have the opportunity to eat were cooked slowly into delicious congee. In summer, food such as cold noodles, pumpkin balls or sweet potato balls was prepared instead in consideration of the heat.
As time passed, these three young people became even more proactive. They successfully persuaded many restaurants, cafes and cake shops to donate egg whites, bread crust, failed macarons, meat offcuts, etc. In addition, immediately after the team members made a phone call, a high-end organic supermarket lent them a spacious, bright kitchen. There were also many shops wanting to work with the team as surplus food collection points.
Connecting people and exploring surplus food business opportunities
“At first we only thought about helping homeless people. It was only later that we found the ‘Stone Soup’ story stimulated everyone to pay attention to the surplus food in their fridges and make sure they created no waste. Upon reflection, we realised that food could have a lot more power than we had imagined,” said Chu Kuan-chen.
Therefore, they started to approach banquet halls, places where food waste is very easily generated at wedding banquets or corporate end of year parties. They suggested to the event organisers that they charge just NT $100 per table for Do You A Flavor to make a presentation on its cause, as well as collect any surplus food afterwards. But if the event organisers were happy to help the team hand out leftover cuisine on the street, they would not charge anything for this service.
Do You A Flavor encourages every household to donate its surplus food before it is thrown in the bin. On the last Friday of each month, it uses food donations to make delicious meals for 90 homeless people. At the same time, it also invites the public to pay for meals, dine with the homeless and listen to the life stories of the people living on the streets. Of course, sometimes the prepared food is not the right amount, in which case anything left over is donated to other charities.
After seeing how food brought people together, Do You A Flavor decided to extend its activities to the Nanjichang community, which is home to the largest proportion of low-income families in Taipei City. At first, it cooperated with local traditional markets to collect unsaleable ingredients. Later, the team borrowed a kitchen from a restaurant for preparing meals that would immediately be delivered to local residents. As expected, having acquired this site, many young people joined the charitable business.