In 2008, Sri, and her sister, Pugeneswari, arrived at a hospital in Penang, anxious and worried about their mother who was admitted into the intensive care unit. After a period of visitation, they left the ward in the evening to buy some food, not forgetting an extra portion of food for the security guard stationed at the hospital, who they had a chance to speak to while at the hospital.
“We passed him the food, and he thanked us so profusely, as though we were god,” said Sri as she recalls the exchange years ago. “It shocked us, to say the least, because it seemed as though the security guard was hoping someone would give him food. That became a crucial moment for us, and we decided that we would do something to help.”
At home, Sri and her sister diligently avoid wasting food, always finishing up the food or choosing to cook less. The conversation with the security guard highlighted the contrast between the food being wasted on a daily basis and the countless individuals living day to day, hungry, without the access to this basic necessity. In Malaysia, food waste is an interminable problem. According to SWCorp Malaysia (Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Corporation), households comprise 44.5 percent of the 16,667.5 tonnes of food waste generated in Malaysia daily, while about 24 percent (4,005 tonnes of the food waste) is classified as still edible. This is enough to provide three meals to 2,970,000 people for a day.
“On one hand you have people who will not bat an eyelid at throwing away excess food, while on the other we see people like the uncle we met at the hospital, who most definitely faced trouble with getting food,” Sri noted. "That's when my sister thought of exploring what we could do for these people. They can't keep depending on others to pass them food."
The Birth of Panjam Food Rescue
Soon after, Sri found a way to connect surplus food from events and distribute them to people who struggled to get food on a regular basis, such as the security guard, giving way to Panjam Food Rescue. Panjam bridges the gap between food waste and the less fortunate in Penang by ensuring that surplus supplies of food, which would otherwise be wasted, reaches them on the same day that it is rescued. Once businesses, restaurants or events with excess food reach out to Panjam with notifications about surplus food, either raw or cooked, Panjam would dispatch 'rescuers' to pick up the food and deliver them to target beneficiaries, namely security guards, cleaners, construction workers, the homeless, B40 communities, old folks' homes, children's homes and such - those who need it most. Puvendran, the co-founder of Panjam, who is also actively involved in delivering food to security guards and cleaners even during the night, emphasises that food should reach the people instead of ending up in landfills.
“We want to make sure that for each and every call we receive, Panjam will rescue the food, so that it will not end up in a landfill.”
The Malaysian Indian Youth Accelerator - A turning point
Even in the beginning of Panjam as a non-profit organisation, Sri and her team - Puvendran, Pugeneswari, Shiva, and Navindran - were devoted to her work wholeheartedly, motivated by the incident with the security guard and the impact of the food rescues on the people and communities they have helped. "I never really thought about generating income with my work with Panjam until 2019, when we joined the MIYA boot camp," Sri recalled.
In 2019, Panjam officially listed as a social enterprise following their participation in the Malaysian Indian Youth Accelerator (MIYA), a programme jointly run with the Prime Ministers Office (PMO) Malaysia and Mereka to empower marginalised Indian youth and ex-offenders with the social entrepreneurial mindset to encourage self-sustaining careers, turn ideas into sustainable business models through a mentorship programme with local impact partners, and to alter the social stigma and narrative around ex-offenders. Drawing from the programme’s modules, including Design Thinking and Social Business Canvas, Panjam graduated from MIYA as a team of five with a solid business model around the issue of perpetual food waste and the communities in Penang who faced challenges in food security. Sri expressed happiness in being able to sustain Panjam as a social enterprise following participation in MIYA.“The boot camp really helped us shape Panjam into what it is today - it enables us to continue salvaging food and distributing it to the people who truly need it,” said Sri, who also added that she remains thankful to Rashvin Pal Singh and Gurpreet Singh, the co-founders of Biji-biji Initiative and Mereka, who have been central to the programme as mentors and facilitators.
“What's more - I’m happy to say that I get to generate income for myself, my communities and the people I work with - which is what I love.”
Overcoming challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic
As with many instances, Panjam Food Rescue took a hit following the first nationwide lockdown imposed in 2020 to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. "With the first lockdown, there weren't any more events that we usually worked with to rescue leftover food, which meant that there wasn't any excess food to distribute to our communities," Sri explained. To alleviate some of the effects of the pandemic and the lockdown, Panjam collaborated with other local organisations, such as the Lions' Club and the Penang State Government to support the restaurant owners who previously worked with the organisation. From there, Panjam transitioned from collecting food to cooking food and distributing it to the homeless, who were relocated to Kompleks Masyarakat Penyayang in Penang. "In July 2020, when restaurants could be open again, we began engaging with our partners again to resume our main work of rescuing food from restaurants". However, with the very recent FMCO, Panjam returned to cooking food to be distributed, and rescuing raw food, such as rice.
Addicted to championing food waste - a happiness unmatched
Since 2019, Panjam Food Rescue has managed to recover 8,818.74 metric tonnes of food. With a website available for business and organisations to reach out to Panjam with excess food by filling out a digital form, Panjam continues to create positive social and environmental impact for their the target beneficiaries. Panjam currently boasts 380 registered 'Panjam Tummies' (the target beneficiaries), who receive rescued food whenever there is a supply, helping these groups of people reduce food expenses for the day. Panjam also employs a group of delivery riders who help distribute salvaged food. “Currently, we have a total of 11 rescuers, which includes ex-offenders as well,” Puvendran added. “If there’s any of you who would like to be involved with Panjam Food Rescue, please contact us,” urged Puvendran, adding that the positive impact is not only manifested on the environment, but it also gives a chance to the delivery riders to earn income.
When asked about Panjam's work and how Sri feels to date, Sri likened the journey to an 'addiction' in giving a hand to the communities in need. "Whenever I receive calls for food rescues or distribution, I'd always say, 'Okay, I'll go!'" Sri mentioned, with a laugh. "I just feel really happy being able to help the people who truly need it - I call it an addiction at this point". Malaysia, wrought with multiple lockdowns in the journey to curb the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, has seen vulnerable communities suffer and struggle to obtain basic necessities. Panjam Food Rescue, built upon a team of dedicated individuals such as Sri and her sister, and the team from MIYA, shines a light on human heart and passion for meaningful impact.
To find out more about Panjam Food Rescue and discover collaboration opportunities, visit Panjam’s site, check out their Facebook page for updates. If you know of any leftover food that can be rescued around Penang, please contact Puvendran at +60 12-528 1224.