COCHABAMBA, Bolivia – The dual problem of hunger and food loss or food waste is being addressed head-on in the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, where every day dozens of volunteers salvage edible food that would otherwise be thrown away and distribute it to homes for children and the elderly.
These volunteers are part of the Food Bank of Bolivia, an initiative that is the only one of its kind in the Andean nation and was launched by a group of university students concerned about the malnutrition versus food waste paradox, that entity’s founder and executive director, Nicole Guerrero, told EFE.
While food is collected and distributed in Bolivia in solidarity drives at Christmas and various other times of the year, no one had come up with a sustainable, year-round program until now.
“The food bank is the only system that helps eradicate hunger sustainably because it’s replenished every day. It’s an efficient use of resources, a bridge between abundance and scarcity,” Guerrero said.
The origins of this initiative date back to 2017, when she and 10 other students at Universidad Privada del Valle in Cochabamba began researching the connection between food loss (the term used when food is discarded between the producer and the market) and food waste (food that’s thrown out post-purchase by the consumer) and the problems of hunger and malnutrition in Bolivia.
Their interest was piqued after an instructor at Universidad Nacional de La Plata told them about a food bank that operated in that eastern Argentine city.
“We’re sure that at least 1,800 tons of food in perfect condition are thrown out in one day in Cochabamba,” Guerrero said.
Food is discarded by all sectors involved in the production and consumption chain, from farmers, sellers and stores and food service outlets to consumers’ homes, she said.
In their research the students also came upon figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report indicating that 2 million Bolivians, or around 15 percent of the population, suffer from chronic malnutrition.
“Pursuant to this research, we decided to found the first food bank” with an initial collection in August 2018, Guerrero recalled.
What began as an 11-person project now comprises at least two hundred volunteers, ninety of whom lend their time on a permanent basis. These individuals take turns collecting food “all day long, every day” from companies and popular markets that have joined this initiative.
Food sellers sometimes reach the end of their work day with the idea of heading home soon but without knowing what to do with their additional supply. The food bank thus provides a valuable service for these vendors and keeps them from generating excessive amounts of waste.
“We prevent them from having to throwing throw (items) in the bin or spend time and energy on what to do with that food, which we pick up and distribute,” she said.
The food bank also works with some catering services, restaurants and hotels, as well as processed food companies, which deliver products to the food bank that are nearing their expiration date and would otherwise have to be discarded or destroyed.
The collected food is distributed to institutions that have entered into contractual arrangements with the food bank, mostly group homes for children but also assisted living facilities for the elderly and soup kitchens.
Initially the food was distributed to only around 60 children, but now the number of beneficiaries totals around 8,500 people, Guerrero said.
The centers benefiting from this food aid pay a type of monthly membership fee that does not cover the cost of the food but does cover the food bank’s logistics expenses and thereby contributes to the sustainability of this initiative.
In its year and a half in operation, the food bank has redistributed more than 30,000 kilograms (66,080 pounds) of perfectly edible food.
The system it employs “proves that it is not necessary to invest in the production of more food to end hunger,” but rather through “efficient and immediate redistribution” it is possible to make adequate use of existing products.
The positive response the food bank has received in Cochabamba has prompted plans to expand the operation this year to the cities of La Paz and Santa Cruz – the other two most populous Bolivian regions – and eventually establish a nationwide network.