It was a story about broccoli soup that brought home Shirley Zhu the importance of the save on junk food work she was doing. She and her twin Annie, 18, were delivering food parcels to people struggling to find affordable, nutritious food in her hometown of Houston, Texas. One woman, who had been visited for the second time by Shirley, was delighted to tell him that she had made broccoli soup for him and his young daughter with a front packet.
save on junk food
“It was encouraging to see that even giving people a product bag can have a positive impact on their lives,” says Shirley. It has shown the power of new foods – not only to improve health, but also to bring families closer by encouraging them to cook and eat together. “As long as people have access to junk food and fast and inexpensive fast food, I think it also breeds families,” he said.
Shirley and Annie were 15 years old when in 2017 they began collecting unsold food in restaurants and bakery stores in Houston and passed it on to residents living in “food deserts” – areas with limited access to fresh, inexpensive food. Together with the first team of ten classmates from their high school, they founded the Fresh Hub. With the help of the smartphone app and the default messaging service, they are able to notify citizens when new foods are available.
This vision was inspired by a catastrophic natural disaster.
In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit Texas bringing winds of 130mph (209km / h) and dropping more than 5ft (1.5m) rainfall in some parts of the state. The worst hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years, caused catastrophic floods and killed 68 people. At its height, about one-third of Houston was underwater.
The tragedy woke Annie and Shirley. While their neighborhood survived the worst consequences, they saw a great need throughout the city as about 135,000 homes were destroyed or destroyed, forcing tens of thousands of people to move into temporary shelters. The Zhus took two families whose homes were flooded.
- After the storm, I was shocked because I knew there was inequality before, but I have never seen it or seen it so close, “said Annie.
As the water recedes and efforts to rebuild begin, the sisters volunteer to help with the cleaning of the shops, where they see an abundance of food discarded. There was a mixed feeling for Shirley, “seeing that all the food was being taken out of the shops and at the same time there were people, there were families at home, in need of food”.
This situation is being repeated worldwide. About 2.5 billion tons of food is lost or wasted annually, about 40% of all food produced, according to a WWF report. It is a disaster in many statistics. These foods would not only help to address food insecurity affecting hundreds of millions of people worldwide, but also contribute to climate change: food waste is estimated to generate up to 10% of electricity.
- Shirley’s experience in the store has created what she describes as a local puzzle: there has to be a way to deal with both problems at the same time – by rescuing unused food and delivering it to those who need it, while the weather benefits.
Annie and Shirley began meditating in their bedroom, walking down the aisle to share some of the healthiest food at social events. They have contacted food stores and even farmers, but found themselves rejected because they were not a registered organization, or because the existing facilities were not available, or sometimes because, like the 15-year-old couple, they were not taken seriously. “We were high school students and we weren’t very honest,” Shirley said.
They changed tactics. Instead of trying to build something from the ground up, they decided to join forces with an organization that is already doing the work. Second Servings, a non-profit in Houston, already has bakkies, equipment, and food rescue technology, donations to nonprofits, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and other areas in need. What he didn’t do was hold events.
- Barbara Bronstein, founder of Second Servings, says she jumped at the chance to collaborate when Shirley and Annie approached her. “They would be going to community centers that we wouldn’t go to, that would increase our reach.”
- Bronstein, whom the sisters described as one of their great counselors, was immediately struck by their love and organization. “These girls are something else and very dedicated,” she said.
Shirley and Annie’s desire to help those facing food shortages resonates with their family history. When their parents came to the United States from Shanghai in 2002 to study, life was very difficult. With a few resources, they found a free shopping program at a supermarket in Montana, where they lived at the time.
It was a way of life. But none of them are available to everyone, as Annie found out while talking to a classmate who also had immigrant parents. “He had a completely different story where his family had no access so they relied on less expensive things which could be fast food, so they made a habit of going there,” he says. He began to see a very different way of eating human food.
With plenty of food
Despite being a rich country, with plenty of food, more than 37 million people in the US – more than 10% – strive to get enough healthy food to live a healthy and active life. Globally, food insecurity is a growing problem. Up to 811 million people (about 10% of the world’s population) will face famine by 2020, according to the UN, an increase of more than 100 million people from 2019.
In Houston, food insecurity areas are on the rise, with more than 500,000 residents living in food deserts. The problem was already serious before the epidemic, Bronstein said. “But Covid exacerbated the situation.” Pictures of people in Houston lined up for miles in their cars to collect food donations made headlines around the world. About one fifth of the city’s population now faces food insecurity.
At the same time, up to 40% of US food has not been eaten. “That food is enough to feed 164 million people in the United States for their daily intake of food every year,” said Maddie Keating, a member of the Food Security Council, a nonprofit conservation organization.
The environmental impact of all these unhealthy foods only adds to the sadness of this.
Early food production requires a long series of processes that emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Household food waste, which makes up 60% of all food waste, consists of embedded waste “from the farm, transporting, packing, repairing, selling, transporting it to your home, refrigerator, cooking, only when it is transferred to landfills”, said Clementine O’Connor , chief executive of sustainable food programs at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
“This is one of the reasons why food waste is such a big problem,” says Shirley, and reducing the impact of organic food is also part of Fresh Hub’s goals. Last year the sisters received the presidential Youth Environmental Award, presented by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for their work with Fresh Hub.
Prior to the epidemic, Annie and Shirley had performed at Fresh Hub events. In collaboration with other students (Zaid Ali, Miles Mackenzie, Safia Khan, Amiel Katz, Serena Hou, Angela Ling, David Tang and Samiha Zaman) they will check their days with Second Servings to make sure they get food and will contact the Houston Health Department to book a community center. They then feasted on neighbors with yard signs advertising the event.
- The sisters also invited other organizations – such as the Houston Public Library and the Texas Workforce, which provide employment services – to set the tables for the event. “We want to bring one store where people can not only get food but also other resources to work,” Shirley said.
- Attendees can also sign up for messaging service, receive alerts about future events and sisters design an app to provide event venues and easy-to-follow recipes made for another student at their school using ingredients commonly found in food banks.
As much as a year and a half ago, however, Covid disrupted the Fresh Hub model. The sisters were determined to continue providing food, especially since the effects of the epidemic had worsened. People were losing their jobs and struggling to provide for their families. “Demand has increased,” said Annie.
Since public participation events are not on the agenda, the sisters switch to home delivery, placing boxes at the people’s door every two weeks. Add a form to their website and app where people can request food delivery and work with the Nurse-Family Partnership, a non-profit that helps first-time mothers living in poverty, to reach people in need.
- As the restrictions dropped, they returned to community centers but switched to monthly driving events, with volunteers stuffing food boxes into people’s car boots.
“Food redistribution is not a new phenomenon, as is the lack of food security,” said Pyyche Williams-Forson, a professor and chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland. What a novel, he says, to see high school students do, he says. “I say kudos to them for seeing the need and get up.”
- There is also the case with Annie and Shirley, who have learned that while trying to deal with serious problems, it can be extremely difficult, if you take one step at a time.
- Annie says that Hurricane Harvey led to a vision that changed the way she thought. “I can’t just wait for other people to find solutions, but I have to be part of that organization to make my own solution,” he said.
Shirley echoed that sentiment. “We used to see some older people as heroes in this situation and take action and we didn’t see ourselves as capable of making a difference,” he said. Now you believe that no matter how old you are or what resources you have, it is always possible to do something.
“I think they’re brave,” Bronstein said. “That surprises me because maybe as you grow older you get more and more restricted. But they? Nothing scared them.”