An interview with Abigail Smith of Thai SOS - The food rescuer
When I booked to go to Seven Spoons for their Taste Sustainability event I joked about drinking “left overs” to a friend and it turns out we were drinking cocktails made from surplus lime and herbs, actually, the entire meal of the evening was based on local produce and surplus ingredients collected by the Thai-SOS program.
Apart from finding the meal surprisingly complex and delicious, thanks to Chef Joke and our host Regan, who are the founders of Pairoj Consulting (social enterprise consulting agency) and owners of Seven Spoons, we were privy to a panel of sustainability warriors who were actively making a difference to local waste and food health issues affecting everyday Bangkokians.
Foodies may have also heard that Michelin 3 star restaurant chef, Massimo Boturra is making 5 Star meals from surplus foods and inviting “Top Chefs” on a rotation to cook in his soup kitchens, entirely staffed by volunteers.
But a much lesser known but equally admirable individual is helping to develop a similar cause right here in Bangkok. Abigail Smith was one of the panelist leading the Sustainability discussion on food waste is the COO of Thai-SOS.
Abigail has been spearheading the first active branch of The Scholars of Sustenance Foundation in Bangkok since March 2016, with an initiative to collects quality, surplus food supplies from hotels and supermarkets to orphanages and other communities desperately in need of food sustenance. Since its conception, Thai-SOS is diverting over 1,500 kgs of food daily from entering local landfills whilst providing over 18,000 meals a week to the underprivileged.
Bangkok foodies was keen to catch up with Abigail and find out more about what the initiative involves and what Bangkok supply chains can do to get in on this feel-good, do good movement.
FULL NAME/NICKNAME: Abigail Smith
OCCUPATION/POSITION: Chief Operations Officer
BUSINESS NAME: Scholars of Sustenance Foundation, Thailand (Thai-SOS)
BUSINESS ACTIVITY: Food Rescue Foundation
How did you become involve in Thai-SOS? Was it from a personal experience or an epiphany you may have had?
It was a bit of both. I had been working in the hospitality and food industry for many years, and was quite fed up with the amount of waste, particularly in luxury brands. Thankfully, I met a like-minded individual, Bo Holmgreen, who had a concept to do something about this. After our meeting, I decided to leave the hospitality industry, and instead work for him and set up this foundation in Thailand.
What is Thai-SOS about, in brief?
We are a fully committed food rescue foundation. This means that we take surplus food to its most meaningful end while creating awareness around the issues of food waste.
Scholars of Sustenance Thailand runs two main programs: a direct edible program, where food is picked up that is still good for human consumption, but perhaps not up to snuff for buyers or luxury brands, and deliver directly that day at no costs to a community in need. The other program is a composting program, where we work mostly with prep kitchens picking up food scraps from prep (egg shells, coffee grounds, fruit and veg peals), and deliver to small farms in the areas to be turned into compost. The farmers keep this compost to help bolster their crops.
What does it take to run this program? Are you reliant on volunteers, sponsors and donations?
We have a paid team of nine, but we do accept volunteers and interns to help out and we will educate them on how our programs work. Our international board provides us the baseline funding, and for expansion on operations we work to bring in corporate sponsors outside of our food donors.
What is the biggest funding challenge for Thai-SOS? Would it be the cost of trucks to pick up and distribute the surplus foods?
We have been lucky to get support on trucks and other in-kind items, like refrigerators. Currently, we would love to expand to other areas in Thailand, and are seeking support to launch branches in Chiang Mai, Phuket or Hua Hin.
We would also like to bring in app development on-board to make our systems more efficient, we think that would save costs in the long run.
Another huge cost for is fuel and tolls, and we are also seeking sponsorships.
Is it only large corporations that can contribute to the surplus food donations?
Absolutely not, we collect from small restaurants, embassies, and even schools. We are very open to discussing with any business that has food waste on how they can get involved.
How about quality control? Is there a trained person to select the surplus goods from the donators?
Our HAACP-trained food hygienist (Fai) is also our Donor Relations Coordinator. She is able to spend some time with all of our donors to inform them on how to properly separate their edible donations. There are certain items that we do not accept, such as curries cooked with coconut milk and thawed seafood, as these spoil quickly. In addition to this, every member of our staff is trained in food safety and handling so they can double-check all incoming donations.
Do people worry about the health concerns with surplus stock? How is this managed or controlled?
Of course people are concerned. We manage this through explaining our process and the history of similar programs that are successful in other areas of the world. Once any donor comes on board, we begin an in-depth training immediately. This demonstrates exactly why and how our process for food collection works so well.
We are always happy to take people out for ride-alongs with our trucks to witness the process first-hand. This transparent system allows for anyone with concerns about food safety to talk to our donor and recipient communities on the benefits of the program.The system can be managed to mitigate concerns over food safety or quality.
Now that we are almost two years old, we’ve served over 350,000 meals successfully, and spread our mission and passion to many organizations and corporations throughout the greater Bangkok area, we are finding partners more eager to work with us as we are known for being able to successfully manage these concerns.
What are some of your plans to raise awareness and donations? Upcoming programs or events?
What can the public do to help or contribute?
Get involved by volunteering with us, convincing companies to donate, be it from your own corporate canteen or perhaps food industry connections, help us fundraise for growth by joining us or hosting us at events or offer direct contributions.
Also, just generally watch your food waste at home or when you eat out. We can begin dealing with this massive issue of food waste starting right from our own kitchens!
What can a professional who has a small or large amount of surplus food do to get involved?
To get involved, the first step is to reach us at Thai-SOS to get more information on how our programs work. We’d like to meet all new possible donor at their property to assess their needs and scale. Together, we build a bespoke program tailored to each donor and new property to fit their quantities, schedule, type of donations, etc.
What are some of the chefs and industry professionals can do to be more aware of the waste produced and decrease the amount. And even the general public?
For chefs, restaurants, and retailers, we often find the best first step is through weighing the properties’ food waste. It can be really enlightening to start separating the food from normal trash to establish an idea of how much is being thrown away daily. Once you have the data, you can formulate a plan on why the waste is happening and how best to reduce it.
How do you think this helps businesses other than they are doing a great thing for humanity?
The end result of our operations is not only humanity, it also environmental. Food waste makes up over 60% of Thailand’s landfills, the breakdown of this food waste in landfills is one of the world’s largest contributors to Green House Gases, worsening climate change daily.
It is not simply the GHG, but also the entire food chain which is damaging our environment. When we throw away a tomato, we are also throwing away all of the resources that went into the production of that tomato.
We find, that almost all chefs, retailers, and businesses do not want to throw their product into the landfills, as they take great pride in their work, however, some waste is unavoidable. Our partners normally see Thai-SOS as a solution to this problem. We not only ensure that their product is not taken to the landfills, but also goes to help enrich people in our communities lives.
Beyond all of this, Thai-SOS is fully committed to help our partners limit food waste at the sourcewhich can save money from direct purchase of the goods to the cost of garbage disposal. We do this by first creating great awareness at multiple staffing levels the issue of food waste (kitchen, front of house, security, housekeeping, purchasing and receiving, etc…) through our trainers. Once a team begins seeing what items they are boxing up to donate, we will help make them make decisions from ordering to plating to preparing. We also provide monthly data reports to management to review on what days, and in what categories they are donating the most to help find trends in what can be done at specific retailers and properties to change their ordering.