The Food Saviors

In five Argentine cities, volunteers rescue leftovers from parties and events and take them to community meal programs

Three strangers meet at midnight, take a ride in a car, and then knock on the back door of a party venue. When they get inside, they cover themselves from head to toe: face masks, hairnets, aprons, and gloves; they don’t want to leave any traces. Discreet and perfectly coordinated, they pile kilos of food onto plastic trays; it’s freshly prepared food that will not be sent to the party’s buffet line. They wrap the trays, load them into the car, and leave.

photo of food rescuePhoto by Marcelo EscayolaGonzalo Martínez heads one of the volunteer teams during a food rescue that saved 120 kilos of food from a Christmas party.

Minutes later, in the early morning hours, they knock on the door of a home for children. When they get inside, they unload almost 200 portions of food, say goodbye, and leave. The car drops each passenger at their house. The spontaneous team dissolves into the night. They may never see each other again. This is how, like a commando of on-call superheroes, Proyecto Plato Lleno (“Project Full Plate”) functions. It’s an Argentine non-profit initiative that serves as a nexus between leftover food from large events and community soup kitchens that feed those in need. A simple idea that reduces food waste and provides an example of how avoiding waste is simpler than it seems. Their motto is #LaComidaNoSeTira (Food is not something to be thrown out).

The Case Against Waste

According to figures gathered by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a third of all food produced on a global level is thrown away without being consumed. In the world of catering, it’s calculated that for every event close to five percent of the food will end up in the dumpster. Catering budgets must factor in this “loss.” For weddings and banquets, around one kilo of food per person is prepared. This means that at an event with 1000 guests, 50 kilos of freshly prepared food will go directly into a trash bin without ever having left the kitchen.

Alexis Vidal and Paula Martino know this reality firsthand because they both work in event planning and sustainability. In 2014 they met while working at a banquet and shared the same contempt for the systematic waste of food. Alexis proposed a simple idea: to ask the catering companies for permission to save the leftover portions and take them to those in need, to soup kitchens or shelters. They talked to the directors of the two catering companies they worked for and made the idea a reality, using their own cars to transport the food.

“After five food rescues we saw it would be viable,” Paula says. Less than three years later, Proyecto Plato Lleno counts 439 food rescues in Buenos Aires, a total of 46,269 kilos of food saved from the dumpster. According to their calculations, this equals 92,538 “full plates” across 60 shelters, foundations, and schools. The number keeps growing: in January 2017 they carried out twelve food rescues. In December 2016 — high season thanks to the holidays — they had twenty-five rescues, almost one per day.

Help When You Can

Today, Proyecto Plato Lleno runs smoothly thanks to its network of almost 200 volunteers who communicate through a message group on the mobile phone app Telegram. “The catering companies or the companies who organize the events call us and invite us to participate,” says Paula Martino. “Then we put out the call on Telegram. The volunteers who are able to participate at that time and date let us know and we organize the teams. The idea is that there’s always at least one car available, and a person who’s been on a previous save who can lead the operation.”

Gonzalo, Nataly, and Johanna come from diverse backgrounds but one night in December, the desire to help brings them together in the kitchen of a huge party venue. Gonzalo is the most seasoned volunteer: he’s been working with Proyecto Plato Lleno for a year and a half and has a dozen food rescues under his belt. It’s Johanna’s third time volunteering and Nataly’s second. The two women say they like the flexibility of the volunteer system. “I used to volunteer with the Red Cross but it took up so much of my time that I had to give it up to be able to study,” Nataly explains. “Something similar happened to me when I volunteered with the NGO A Roof for My Country, which does very important work but you have to give up your entire weekends. With Full Plate I help when I can, and when I can’t, I don’t have to feel bad,” says Johanna.

In Expansion

Proyecto Plato Lleno continues to grow its network of participants daily. There are three ways to get involved: as a volunteer for a food save; as an “economic volunteer” (donating money for the purchase of plastic trays, cling wrap, masks, and gloves); or contributing knowledge. Soup kitchens, caterers, and other companies also pitch in as sponsors. Sometimes the number of events is so high that the network of volunteers is unable to cover them all and food is left un-rescued, i.e. wasted. In general, this is due to a lack of volunteers with a car at their disposal. Since December of last year, Proyecto Plato Lleno is now finally able to boast its own van, complete with refrigeration, similar to the vehicles used to transport fish. This increases not only the number of possible food rescues but also the variety of foods that can be distributed without health risks. The organization won the van as a prize in a “Click in Solidarity” contest set up by a supermarket chain.

Many people have contacted Proyecto Plato Lleno about bringing the initiative to different cities and countries around the world. The organizing committee has therefore created a guidebook with advice on how to replicate the project. As of now, the initiative has been implemented in four other Argentinean cities — La Plata, Mendoza, Mar del Plata, and Posadas — and in San José, Costa Rica, where the motto is #LaComidaNoSeBota (“food is not something to be wasted”). Communities in Uruguay, Venezuela, Spain, and the US are also interested in implementing the project. When faced with the question of whether they ever worry that “something will go wrong,” Paula and Alexis respond: “If we’d let our fears take over we’d never have started: legal issues, what happens if the food goes bad…. Donating food isn’t prohibited, we’re supported by the Good Samaritan Law. But if it were up to some lawyer, none of those 92,538 ‘full plates’ would have ever existed.”

Translated by Frances Riddle.

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