This blog was originally written for ExChange The World.
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FOODWAYS | Switzerland
I always wanted to leave Portugal, travel, learn new things, meet new people – says Joao Almeida, founder of Foodways - When I started to study I thought about Erasmus. I ended up in Switzerland. I really liked it. I met very interesting people, they know many things about many topics, they speak about politics and do a lot of volunteer work. I also met my wife there. After finishing my economy studies in Portugal I came to Switzerland again to study sustainability and write my thesis about food waste.
After the thesis Joao became quite known, he got invited to many different TV programs, newspapers, and he was recognized as a food waste expert. He decided to use the momentum for creating something bigger.
Actually before starting my studies I didn’t know much about food waste. I was working in a huge company and only there I discovered that 80% of all food we eat is based on 4 crops: rice, corn, wheat, and soya. 80%?!? I started to get interested in food and with time also in food waste. It’s a huge thing with a lot of impact on society, environment, economy… We eat 3-5 times per day and nobody speaks about food problems! After finishing my thesis I was looking for a job. Two weeks before my daughter was born, I had quite a big pressure to earn money. Martina, my partner, was unemployed. Everybody was saying – you have to go and work somewhere, in a restaurant, anywhere. But I was thinking: if now, with the kid, I start to work anywhere I would never come back to do what I really want. I struggled a lot with myself and with a lot of criticism. One of my fellow students was also interested in the topic and we decided to do something together, focusing on food, sustainability and, above all, food waste reduction.
They started with conferences, workshops, they did exhibitions travelling all around Switzerland. With time they started to focus more on consultancy and services, they work with companies and government, creating strategy development for them. And they give classes to cooks to teach them how to reduce food waste.
Cooks are motivated to come because waste means you are not efficient. We actually don’t tell people directly what our aim is, we try to make their life easier by teaching them habits which at the same time are more sustainable and better for our planet. The same thing is happening with the application I’m working on now. An app with recipes that are sustainable but people don’t even notice it. The idea is that you go to the app, you say what you have in your fridge and it shows you different recipes. At the end of the recipe, there are always some tips about food waste, how to preserve your food which is going bad, how to use it the next day if you don’t want to eat the same, etc. Before searching for a recipe you can mark if you are vegan, flexitarian, if you are allergic or you don’t like something, if you have kids or maybe you want to eat only seasonal food. Then, you write what you have in your fridge. Let’s say: beans. It shows you falafel as an option, with seasonal vegetables, for example, spinach. If you don’t like spinach, the application will suggest other alternatives.
The application is the result of a year-long process during which the Foodways team tried to understand what makes people eat sustainable. They realized that people are not really against eating sustainably, but they are generally not motivated enough to think about it on a daily basis. By using this tool, without even realizing it, people just apply basic rules like eating seasonal vegetables or less meat.
Meat - even if you click you are a meat eater - appears only in every fifth recipe. We don’t say we are a vegetarian app, because then people won’t use it. They don’t like to be told to eat less meat. But if we give them an interesting, easy recipe to follow without meat, most of them will actually use it. We try to make sustainability part of their daily life. We have to change the way we communicate and talk about sustainability. It cannot be a niche, something which only hippies do. We try to make sustainability digestible.
Sustainability should not be a concept limited to food, but an approach to all resources in our life. And it can be also a great chance to actually create a financially stable business.
People ask me if I have other jobs to pay the bills. I don’t, even though matching social impact with business is really hard. I think we managed because we started looking at this topic from a different perspective. For example, we were asking ourselves how we can bring cooks to our cooking class. We didn’t tell them: look, there is climate change and food waste is contributing 50% to it. They don’t care. We told them: you can save 10% of your money by reducing food waste and then they started to be interested. In the end, what we teach them is still the same. Our recipe for success is to tell the story differently to different target groups.
Nowadays, the story is a crucial part of any project. The story of Foodways is about reducing food waste, but not about reusing what is already wasted and that’s quite a big difference.
We don’t work on redistributing food waste. I see it as an important task, but not as a solution. We shouldn’t have food excess. And we shouldn’t base help, to people in need, on food waste. They should have choice and access to good food. When people in need receive food from redistribution, sometimes it happens they eat five days in a row the same cake and nothing else. Is it really a solution? Of course, it’s ok to redistribute food waste, but it should be exceptional, we shouldn’t rely on it. Let’s reduce waste and increase people's income so they have real choices.
How can we do it?
From my experience, the most crucial is openness to learn. When you open a company you have to do many things and be eager to learn. Then, you need passion. If you have passion, you have openness to learn, and you find time - you can prioritize that - you can motivate people around. People often say: I want to start but I have nothing. You have more than you think! First of all – the network. Someone in your network can help you with accounting. Or with a logo. If you want to do something good, especially if you are at the beginning, everybody wants to help. Just start doing. Don’t wait till next year. Do it now. Take a paper, make a list. Do you want to have a school? Start from one class tomorrow. If you combine initiative with passion, everything can happen.