Why waste food when you can share

Dr.Umer Sherif is a food rescuer who turns excess and untouched food into free meals for the hungry

A dentist by profession, Dr.Umer Sherif has the habit of going for early morning walks. And a morning in August 2016 left him heart-broken. “I was out as usual at 4 a.m. for my walk in Ellis Nagar when I saw a man jump out of a municipal bin with food in his hand and some stuck on his mouth. He was obviously scrounging through garbage to find something remotely edible to eat. The sight disturbed me throughout the day.”

Sherif felt a sense of indignation thinking of the obscene amount of food he has seen going waste at weddings and parties. “It made me feel I was contributing to waste and I pledged to address hunger in whichever way I could,” he says. And Madurai Virundhu was born.

Reducing food waste is not a new concern and neither is redistributing to those in need, he says. The point is why waste the food that people can still have? he asks.

And so for the past 12 months, the food that goes uneaten in weddings and would have ended up in landfills, has been feeding the hungry on the roads of Madurai.

Sherif has tied up with 1,000 small and big kalyana mandapams in the city and he and his group of 100 volunteers are on alert from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m for food collection as and when they are informed. “Distribution goes on till well past midnight,” he says, “because all the excess food collected is turned around in two to four hours to make use of the short timelines and make sure people deprived of food are getting something to eat that is perfectly edible.”

Part of his clinic in Ellis Nagar turns into a storage room at least thrice a week when food is collected from various places and brought here, tasted and then neatly packed into individual packets. “It is only when you come out on the street and start noticing that you find lots of hungry people around,” says Sherif and underlines that empty stomachs are not just those from vulnerable families.

“Hunger comes in many forms and could be just affecting anybody.” There have been occasions when Sherif and his team have found well-dressed people speaking different languages but living on pavements at railway stations and bus stands with no food. “They may have been abandoned by their families or robbed of their money and belongings. You see hunger in their eyes as much as you see it in the destitute and the poor,” he adds.

Sherif is motivated to galvanise people into action through compassion and collective pressure to eliminate the vast amount of food waste in our society by giving it to the poor and hungry. As he goes about providing an invisible safety net dishing up the food service, his Madurai Virundhu is still a project in progress. “There are days when we receive no calls to collect any excess food, sometimes we make 100 packets and then there are days when it crosses 1,000 packets,” he says. The team is also very particular about timings as they don’t pick up breakfast items after 10 a.m., lunch after 3 p.m. and dinner after 9 p.m. “Depending on the quantity of food collected and number of volunteers available, we take another two to three hours to pack and distribute the food and we have to ensure the food doesn’t get spoiled by the time it reaches the needy,” says Sherif.

He says the project has become so central to the life of his volunteers who include mostly college students and youths and many of his friends and their acquaintances, that they leave everything else to join him after receiving a call for help in collecting, packing and distributing the food. He meticulously rotates the volunteers to rescue food from going waste.

The beginnings of Madurai Virundhu were perhaps planted when Sherif registered Maalick Foundation to help people in general following the infamous Chennai floods. “The experience of ferrying and distributing three huge consignments of relief materials in Cuddalore, Pondicherry and Chennai was a turning point of my life,” he says. But it was actually even before that Sherif began helping people in far flung areas.

With a fondness for travel, Sherif used to take off to lesser known places in the interiors initially for exploration and leisure. “But I ended up meeting more villagers leading their lives without basic minimum facilities. For them I started my own mobile hospital,” he says.

On a lorry chassis he put a bus body and converted it into a RV that even housed a mini-operation theatre. In the last one decade, Sherif attended to more than 300,000 OP cases and did 1500 plus oral surgeries taking his mobile clinic all over Tamil Nadu during weekends. He would even provide food to the people who came to his dental camps.

Food is a medium to engage with people, says the soft-spoken doctor. He says there have been so many occasions when he got overwhelmed by the gratifying smiles of the people he fed. “Their emotions are so visible and their hearts so pure,” he says, “they don’t waste but look out for each other to share.”

As a practising doctor, how do you find so much time, I ask him. “To focus and work towards ‘no more waste, no more hunger’ gives me eternal energy,” says Sherif, whose dream is ‘pattiniyilla desam’. “Every person we feed makes a memory and the sense of fulfilment does not match any other feeling”