SESO: Fighting Food Waste & Food Poverty In Malaysia
October 7, 2018
In your own words, what is SESO?
Shi Wen (SESO Chief Executive Officer): SESO is a non-profit organisation that stands for Save Environment, Save Ourselves. We were officially incorporated last year, but we only started going on the street this year.
SESO started with a basic, simple concept: We collect surplus food and groceries from grocery stores, and volunteers cook them into a three-course meal. Then we serve the meal to our street friends (persons who live on the streets). We started out hosting 20 to 30 street friends, and now we're serving over a hundred.
We usually do this every other Saturday in front of Bangkok Bank near Petaling Street. We set up tables and chairs, like a pop-up restaurant. There's no queuing - we ask everyone to sit down instead, and we'll serve a three-course meal starting with an appetiser. The meal also comes with a hot drink, coffee or tea.
Nadia (SESO Executive Advisor): Yeah, to make them feel like they're in a restaurant.
Shi Wen: At the end of the day, we're all food lovers, and somehow, there is food waste while people are going hungry. So we're trying to help solve food waste and food poverty at the same time.
We also realise there's the problem of social isolation. When we started in January, when we asked people to sit down, the street friends were really scared.
Nadia: They just wanted to take the food and eat in the corner and not socialise. The idea of SESO is to build a community, to build a little base for everyone. We can find the equilibrium of both fighting food waste and making a better place for everyone.
Shi Wen: The progression that we see after nine months is that everyone will sit down now. They'll even help set the tables, they'll talk to each other. It's a community, at least a bit. People are more willing to accept another person.
We try to promote inclusion and community through a hot cooked meal that people can sit down and enjoy. We'll bring the food to you, and while waiting, you get the chance to talk and interact.
Take us through the process of one of your SESO Meals.
Shi Wen: Normally we get food for free or at a reduced price from a few grocery stores. The volunteers in the morning will pick up the groceries, and the menu will depend on what groceries they manage to collect on that day.
We search for vegetables that are at a reduced price because they're close to the expiry date or fruits that look a little ugly that most people wouldn't buy.
We started out all in-house, so I used to cook the food in my house. Then we'd bring it to the serving place. We brought tables and chairs that could accommodate 30 to 40 people. At first, all the tables and chairs were from our own houses. We begged our parents. "Can we borrow chairs and tables?" Most of the time, we still don't have enough chairs and tables, so we really hope the public can help in any way.
All three of us, we all have day jobs, so Saturday works best.
What do volunteers do?
Shi Wen: At this point, the team is pretty small. The cooking is still done mostly by the three of us. Volunteers come and serve and talk to the street friends. We need manpower to serve them. We need volunteers to make hot drinks, serve appetisers ...
Nadia: Basically it works like a restaurant.
Siying (SESO Marketing Director): Except at the end, the waiters hang out with the customers.
Shi Wen: We get the volunteers together at 7:45pm, brief them, tell them what they need to do. Normally the evening lasts until 10pm.
Do people normally sit for the whole two to three hours?
Shi Wen: Yes, because we tell them, "Don't go yet, we have dessert!"
We really want to increase awareness because many people have this misconception that street friends are lazy, or they're there because of themselves, or they're jobless, or druggies.
Our parents have even said, "Is it safe to get on the streets?" But the majority of our street friends have a job - maybe not a great job, but as construction workers, cleaners, painters ...
Nadia: However, they can't afford housing or basic necessities.
Shi Wen: I would say, they got there because of a complicated life. But for the majority, they really are trying. With a little help from not just us but other NGOs, they can reach a better place.
From left: Siying, Shi Wen and Nadia
How do street friends find out about the SESO Meals?
Shi Wen: There are a few community leaders who help spread the word. I think it's mostly word of mouth. We have individuals coming from different backgrounds, who are old, young, from different races. Some come by themselves, some are families, like a couple with kids.
Nadia: Normally they'll talk about what's going on with their day - or about whatever's new in town! They go around the streets all the time, so anything that's new, they would be the first (to know).
What kind of help does SESO look for when it comes to sponsorship?
Shi Wen: You can be a corporate sponsor, which we are actively looking for now. We have a programme called Sponsor A Meal, and one meal for a street friend is 10 ringgit. You can also be an individual who merely wants to Sponsor a Meal.
For F&B industry members, we would like their cooperation in terms of giving their surplus food.
But even if you have no money or you're not a corporation or you're not in F&B, just come and lend a helping hand. We really need it at this point, when we're starting to expand.
Ultimately, when we talk about a community hub, we hope we will have a place under a roof. A centre where everyone can stay a bit longer, instead of on the street. Also, we need a place to store our items, as well as a kitchen that can accommodate 40 to 50 people. Right now, we're cooking in our house, so that's all the facilities that we have - even frying eggs, it'll be in a tiny pan. I remember I had to make 50 eggs, so I had to fry an egg one by one, 50 times.
What would you say is the cause of surplus food?
Shi Wen: I think there are two categories. Stakeholders: bakeries, restaurants, stores, supermarkets. When you're running a business, it's inevitable that there will be a surplus.
On the other hand, there are the consumers. People have not been buying food with the awareness of reducing food wastage. They over-order or buy groceries that they don't need. Or food goes bad because vegetables are stored badly or when people go on holiday.
Nadia: They don't see what happens to the food after they over-order and it's thrown away. They don't see that there's a bigger picture (in connection to the environment).
What other activities do you have at SESO?
Shi Wen: We collaborated with Street Feeders on one of their events. We also collaborated on a dinner with the restaurant Stoked (in Bukit Damansara), inviting stakeholders, grocery sponsors and F&B people, to increase awareness on the surplus food concept. We can make use of surplus food, instead of just throwing it away.
Our goal is to soft-launch SESO, to let people know what we do and to introduce our app, where we connect restaurants and users, and show how it will benefit everyone. We're building an app for restaurants. You know how some bakeries have buns that are half-price after 9pm? We're building a platform for all restaurants to share what surplus food they have - not just for street friends, but for everyone. It will be location-based, and it will tell you what's available.
SESO Meals are a very small part of SESO. At the end of the day, increasing awareness and how we create a whole big community is more important, in terms of surplus food.