A former PR pro is leading Malaysia's food rescue revival

Blemished or unwanted produce is loaded onto the Food Aid Foundation truck after a day of haggling at the wholesale market outside Kuala Lumpur. Photo by: Kelli Rogers / Devex

Joycelyn Lee used to tell people bad news for a living.

“My main job was not to get my client in the papers, but to keep them out of the papers,” said Lee, a Malaysia native who worked for nine years in international crisis communications and public relations. “I used to be on 24/7 call … it became soul sucking.”

Now, the passionate foodie and home cook repurposes food and serves fresh meals to nearly 200 homeless people six days a week in Kuala Lumpur. With an eye toward sustainability and reducing waste, the meals are created with “rescued” food, or unwanted food salvaged from wholesale markets, grocery stores and restaurants

The career change may seem drastic, and it hasn’t been easy, Lee told Devex outside a three-story building on Tun H.S. Lee Road in central KL, now converted into Pit Stop Community Café. But in the 10 months since the social enterprise opened its doors, the café has already become a hub for food rescue, food lovers, chefs and volunteers — and the model for a new way to sustainably address hunger among the urban poor of Malaysia’s metropolitan, mall-studded capital.

The number of homeless people in KL has increased threefold, from 600 in 2014 to at least 2,000 people in 2015, based on a survey conducted by the Kuala Lumpur City Council. The response to homelessness and urban poverty is sensitive in the city, where the government in May 2016 was accused by several NGOs of rounding up homeless people in lorries and driving them about 30 kilometers away, leaving them by the side of a highway. Federal Territories Ministry Secretary-General Datuk Seri Adnan Md Ikhsan in January said the ministry was working hard to provide shelter for the homeless with the launch of a Homeless Transit Home in Jalan Pahang.

Meanwhile, there is an estimated 15,000 tons of food waste daily in the country, including 3,000 still fit for consumption, according to the Solid Waste Corporation of Malaysia.

There are multiple NGOs and soup kitchens addressing homelessness in the city already, such as Kechara Soup Kitchen, Need to Feed the Need and PERTIWI Soup Kitchen, many of which have been around for years. Many of these groups are mobile, with no established building where those in search of food can always find them, and most operate independently rather than working together. None, Lee said, offer meals every single day. The idea of focusing on food rescue — and of centering her soup kitchen around delicious, homemade food, community and collaboration — was borne of this hole in homelessness response, she explained.

Lee’s journey to reviving food rescue in KL and creating a hub from which to do it first began with stress-induced insomnia. She would drive around the city late at night or early in the morning, sometimes stopping to take a walk or grab a snack at a 24-hour tea stall. It was during these outings that she first began connecting with a population she hadn’t previously paid much mind: KL’s urban poor.

Soon, she was distributing water and food from different locations around the city several evenings a week. But when her apartment started looking like a warehouse of donated goods — and an overwhelming number of people had reached out to find out how they could help — Lee decided to leave her corporate gig for good. She started to hunt for examples of successful social enterprises that address food waste and hunger in other countries. Two stood out immediately: The United Kingdom’s Real Junk Food Project, a network of “pay as you feel” cafes that use food destined for waste to create healthy meals. And the D.C. Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that works to ensure access to healthy food while creating economic opportunity for the disadvantaged.

“I decided not to reinvent the wheel … after a lot of driving around and a lot of coffee, the realization was that it’s not so much a D.C. kitchen that we need, but a hub and platform where everyone can come together,” Lee said. “I think of it as a patchwork quilt, and it’s the beginnings of a hub that we are building here.”

Lee has integrated strategy from both models into the Pit Stop Community Café, a small space with new, donated wooden tables and chairs that serves paying customers by day and homeless clients by night. She has also worked to strengthen the partnerships between the many mobile soup kitchens operating in KL. Pit Stop and four-year-old Food Aid Foundation, for example, share rescued food and benefit from one another’s relationships with grocery stores and local wholesale vendors.

Devex tagged along with Lee during a wholesale market run on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Photo by: Kelli Rogers / Devex

Collaboration was not so much a lesson but a matter of necessity, Lee said. Now, once every two weeks, the two groups team up to drive to a wholesale produce market on the edge of KL during market turnover day to help vendors clear unwanted stock. Food Aid Foundation brings a large truck to pile high with produce such as blemished eggplants, white radish, mustard greens and cucumber — and Lee brings her haggling skills.

“The director of operations for Food Aid Foundation has no time to go and bargain, but I talk a similar language to the vendors there and I can drive very hard bargain because of my upbringing, so I go,” she explained. “We are all operating on scarce resources with limited time, so if you have something and I have something, let’s barter and trade.”

Devex accompanied Lee and Food Aid Foundation’s head of soup kitchen division, Daniaal Rauff, on a Sunday wholesale market run. They secured 835 kilos of food for 580 ringgit ($130) — a new record, thanks in part to free food provided by sellers who know it will either be cooked and served to a cafe crowd to benefit those on the street, or served to the homeless outright.

Lee and her head chef, who previously ran his own Chinese restaurant in London, delight in creating new dishes from old or unwanted food. Pit Stop regularly offers four varieties of soups and stews for its street clients, and during Devex’s visit, a windfall of local lemons meant experimenting with roasted lemon curd for a commercial lunch dessert.

“Food is science, but food is art,” Lee said. “I think that the emotions are doubled when you realize you are saving something, rescuing something for the benefit of someone else.”

The opportunity to make cherry jam in the tropics with 10 cartons of rescued cherries has been a highlight of the past few months, she added. Some of her homemade strawberry and nut butters have become so popular with the lunch crowd that she’s considering retailing them, the proceeds of which would go back into Pit Stop.

Along the way, Lee has learned patience — an attribute she couldn’t afford in corporate life — as well as how to manage herself and her expectations running a social enterprise after so much time spent in the private sector. Pit Stop is a vision that has taken shape slowly and continues to morph, but it’s one that Lee feels strongly is only going to continue to gain momentum, and just as importantly, a mission she finds energizing rather than draining.

“This is tiring, frustrating,” she said of toiling to make the social enterprise a success. “At times it makes me angry. But this also allows me to have hope because it gives other people hope.”

Next on Lee’s to-do list is to find further funding to get her culinary program, inspired by D.C. Central Kitchen, up and running. The program will welcome six young people under the age of 25 for six months of intensive training in the kitchen — from basic cleanliness to knife skills — along with English lessons and counseling. Lee already has several KL restaurant head chefs interested in employing the graduates of the program.

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About the author

  • Rogers kelli cropped

    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.

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