Food waste rescuer: Bo H. Holmgreen

The more we implement circular economy the more we will transform and improve the world – for business, people and planet.

Bo H. Holmgreen is a highly successful Danish entrepreneur-come-philanthropist who has launched a monumental undertaking to reduce the world’s food waste – with Thailand and Indonesia as test beds.

Bo H. Holmgreen is the Founder and CEO of Scholars of Sustenance, SOS. Photo: Joakim Persson.

While most people sit and say that someone ought to do something about this and that, that the government should solve certain problems etc. Founder and CEO Bo’s ‘Scholars of Sustenance’ non-profit food rescue foundation, SOS, launched in 2012, is an admirable example of walking the talk. The Dane experienced firsthand all the food waste taking place and got convinced that something had to be done. And this was very much relating also to his previous financial technology solution for banks, which was all about optimisation.

It is a fact that food waste is unavoidable. However, a lot food unnecessarily becomes waste, while many people are suffering from hunger and are depending on others’ support to survive.

100 million meals wasted

Bo had an eye-opening experience in Bangkok in 2012 as he was enjoying the canapés and wine in the club lounge of a Bangkok five-star hotel by the riverside.

“So I’m sitting there in the sky lounge and after they finish and carry out all the food –of which 97 per cent is untouched–I ask the butler: ‘What happens to this food, do you get to take it home?’ ‘No, Sir, then we would be cooking more and wasting more, so it goes into the trash’ was the reply.”

“I thought: ‘No way! While this goes into the trash I can sit here and look down at the people outside the gates of the hotel that would need this food.’ Then, suddenly I realised: Why am I optimising banks’ money? I need to optimise food for the needy the same way!’

“That gave me the idea how to set up SOS – which is all about the logistics and the concerns with food safety; where managers in hotels do not want to give the food to the poor because they could be sued and so on.”

Bo continues: “So I had to lift it safely out of one logistics system and then safely into another distribution system – where both systems cannot object to each other. And that is how SOS has been successful, so we now have about 100 hotels and some 25 supermarket branches and are growing dramatically.”

Since 2015, their Thai foundation has been pioneering their principles in Bangkok, followed by SOS Indonesia established in 2016, and also Phuket.

SOS has estimated that over 100 million meals that are being wasted every month in Southeast Asia could be redistributed to underprivileged people, so the opportunities for food rescue operations to grow is enormous.

“Right now we are focused on building a very healthy food rescue business where we get as much food as we possibly we can from the donors. And that can sometimes be challenging; where we have overcome objections such as: ‘No, we’re not going to give anything.’ or: ‘Maybe we’ll give you a little bread, but no protein because it’s too dangerous.’”

“Here in Southeast Asia SOS have to sign contracts with every donor–which we willingly do–that we take full responsibility for the food and we make it anonymous so it can never be traced back to the donor. In this way we’ve been operating for four years without one single incident,” explains Bo.

Replica from the banking world

But let us rewind to this thing about banks, which will explain where Bo is coming from.

Bo has been working with computers and within IT for the banking sector throughout his career. He founded his own Transoft International in 1992 in the U.S., which he eventually sold as a very successful business.

“We mathematically optimised cash for banks, predicting how much money was needed where and when and how to put it there at the least cost. We were definitely pioneers and I travelled and sold this service all over the place on all continents. It was a real success and we would save the banks millions of dollars just by being a bit smart.”

“So, our idea for SOS–that this enormous food waste has to stop–comes from my logistics background. My optimisation brain looks at each component that all have a set of restrictions, complexities and so on but none of them can individually do the optimisation. And hotels have to be focused on their profit. It’s an exact replica of what I did in the banking world – if you take your food levels too low you’re hurting the quality of your business. In the banking world it was: your ATMs are running out of cash. In the hotels it is about running out of food or the quality of food. At the same time one shouldn’t have too much, so we encourage them to work on getting the food losses down to a minimum – it’s all about optimisation. And once you’ve done that you optimise the rest of it by using us – we will take the food to the needy people, instead of it going to the landfill.”

The donors get information back on where the food has been re-distributed and how much CO2 and Methangas emissions that have been avoided, so they can also include it in their CSR programme.

“We call it the ‘no-brainer’; we do all the transports for free, we clean our own containers, and recycle those in and out from the donors, recipients and so on. We make it simple; taking care of all the logistics and doing it at no cost to them. And why would the hotels not donate? All the chefs have seen this food waste for years and years, and here they are seeing that there is somebody actually coming with a solution!”

In optimising the food consumption in hotels and supermarkets, where some food waste is unavoidable, Bo has noted that the awareness is not always there.

“This is the same I saw in the banking world where we showed with our simulation techniques that they were wasting money. Once food loss prevention has been implemented by hotels and supermarkets SOS is happy to be the last optimisation part of the chain. Use it, don’t trash it!”

SOS estimates that across Asean, 35% of all food purchased in general ends up in the landfill. “Indonesia, as an example, is number two in the world of food wasters so we can do so much there that it’s incredible!”

“Supermarkets know better because they have to quantify these things. With hotels we try to work with them in order to find the leftover food but the important thing is to get to the realisation at management level and once we have that everything changes.”

Tesco Lotus and Tops are two main supermarkets that are donors in Thailand. “They give us a lot of food that otherwise goes to landfills,” says Bo

“We have definitely turned into a food trucking company with the complexity that this kind of food poses; it’s not frozen, cannot last long and so on, so we’ve got to turn it around extremely quickly. We need to grab it in a timely manner, while it’s still good and edible, and get it to the people that need it. Basically we need to get it out as soon as possible. Usually we get it chilled from the hotels and put it into our cooling truck with its minus two degrees temperature.”

To determine that the food is still safe to consume SOS has food hygienists who use smell, taste and sight, as well as collaborate with chefs and universities for assurance. “Food safety must have the highest priority. Right now we only work with four- and five star hotels and as the food is good enough for those hotels’ guests it is O.K for our recipients too,” claims Bo.

“We have freezers and certain types of food we can freeze and store for the next day, and we will also start a repurposing programme where we re-cook it in our kitchen and make portions and so on. There are people we have not reached yet, while orphanages, refugee camps etc usually have kitchens and can re-cook most of the food themselves.”

In Thailand SOS is also running a compost programme with farmers outside of Bangkok, who gets the food that cannot be given to people, for composting instead.

“We buy them shovels, and give them worms and teach them how to do it, and over a three-month period their horribly bad soil becomes perfectly good to grow things in. We have saved so many farmers from a bad fate just by doing that. And, again, it’s food that should not go to waste. It’s wonderful. It’s part of the circular economy and if I can convince these farmers to grow organic vegetables for our empty trucks to bring on the way back I could convince our hotel donors to buy that food and send the money back to the farms in the villages, and we’ll have another cycle.”

Food equity the ultimate goal

Aside food loss prevention Bo also has a loftier goal, and that is food equity. “I may not live long enough to see but that is the ultimate vision,” says the Dane, as he elaborates.

His foundation is based on two pillars; sustenance (which is the food) and then there is the education part, with scholarships.

“We’re launching a scholarship programme to lift very poor people out of their environment; children who have no chance of getting an education. We would like to make them into food rescue ambassadors that can basically learn about the environment. And it’s part of: ‘Don’t give people fish, but teach them how to fish’. So we will give these scholarships to kids that are now involved and who will return to their own community to help out.”

“And my statement is that the new adage is: ‘Stop fishing, we have enough fish, let’s eat what we have!’ So it’s a different kind of fish story now. This is about food distribution. And the reason for this is: I call it seven-ten-one. We have seven billion people in this world today, but we make enough food for ten billion, and yet one billion goes to sleep hungry every night. So there’s something wrong here; it’s an equity thing.”

“If we can change access to good nutrition and get to the point where the whole food industry is doing something, and we all work together for this, we can achieve food equity. Right now SOS goes and picks up food at the end point; but in the food industry, in the growing, manufacturing and transportation, there is so much food wasted!” continues Bo.

“If I can get access to all that we could save so much more food, and then get that to the right people who have not yet become middle class, we’ll have set up a system. So the other side to that story, and the reason why we are in Asia, is that more people are going from poverty to middle class in Southeast Asia than anywhere else in the world.

So Bo wants to add the food industry to the equation and is therefore building another charity for that.

“I want a thousand trucks and to serve tens of millions of undernourished people. Then the food industry won’t be able to ignore SOS anymore when we come and point out how much of their edible food is going to the landfill. With food equity and all these poor people transitioning to middle class we can change the world.”

Meanwhile, as the whole operation is paid out of the US-based SOS charity the long-term goal is also self-sufficiency for the national SOS organisations.

Bo is currently running the operation in the same way as he used to run a company, which is also needed in order follow the mission, as long as his charity is paying the bills.

“My job is to launch these as boats in the water and to ensure we get volume and scholarships on top. We now have Indonesia, Thailand and we’re entering Cambodia and the Philippines next. I am encouraging the staff to get better at fundraising and then get independent through local fundraising, getting communities involved and so on. But we have not got to that stage yet,” smiles Bo.

Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers donor: Happy to contribute

One of the food donors to SOS in Bangkok is the 700-room Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers.

Executive Chef Robert Czeschka explains how the hotel handles food waste, and became a donor. A strong supporter of the food donation, Robert presented the opportunity in a cluster meeting to the chefs also in other Marriott-branded hotels in Bangkok. That has resulted in quite a few of them partnering up with SOS.

“Even if each hotel gives just a little bit of food the total volume will add up. And it’s great to do something good for people and the community and this is a very good thing for Marriott to support,” thinks Robert.

At Sheraton it was initiated two years and took some time to implement; setting up the structure and going through the learning process and training.

“We have in average per month 150 kilos of food left over that we are not re-using. This is around 640 portions that we are happy to give and donate for the society.”

“With very robust cost-saving programmes in the hotel products are more or less very controlled for buffets. But we need to have a certain amount of food on the buffet, while the rest remains in the fridge, as back-up, and is ready for next buffet. When one buffet finishes we end up with some left-over food that we cannot serve a second time to the customers but that is still perfectly good to eat. We are happy to forward the items that SOS still can use.”

“They come seven days a week and collect left-over buffet items from the breakfast. SOS is very specific in what they can receive and need and can use for their meals to the needy. Anything else left we bring to the staff canteen,” continues Robert.

He thinks that chefs on top level must not only have a 2 or 3 Michelin star restaurant in their CV, they should also have worked in a third world country where people have very little to eat, so that they can learn and be able to create something out of practically nothing.

“SOS is a helpful tool to open the mind that we have poor people on the planet who have nothing to eat. It’s a very good way to learn that we need to respect the food. We take for granted that we have it every day. But if you take a real diet, and see how your stomach reacts, then you’ll really know what it feels like for people who are suffering from not having enough to eat,” thinks the chef.

“Some guests are eating with their eyes, so on buffets their plate is quite filled up, and then you see how much that become wasted food, and that cannot be used for outside because it was touched. People have to learn and respect the food. It’s a learning curve and I think we’re on the right track. It’s similar to at home where your mother teaches you not to waste the food.”

As for this type of donation he says that the understanding for it is getting more and more accepted among people.

Other than donating to SOS the hotel tries to source food locally as much as possible and use every piece of the ingredients, such as tomatoes, in the cooking,

“We are working on having very limited waste in the garbage bin. Do like your mother, the modern creativity is to make something out of say a left-over potato; one can make beautiful things out of it!”

About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

View all posts by Joakim Persson

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