No matter it is a weekday or weekend, daytime or late night, or even a random hour: volunteers of the Food Saving Project (www.etelmentes.hu) are always eager to deliver donated (leftover) food to homeless shelters across Budapest. They do this with no compensation, in their free time, with their own car and at their own cost, just to make sure that edible leftovers land on plates of those in need, instead of the trashbin. The donors are mostly restaurants, event agencies or party planners: the minimum number of portions volunteers are able to pick up is at least 40-50. The results speak for themselves: the 30-member project team has saved close to 20,000 portions since the launch of the project.

We interviewed Jean-Louis Murris and Bea Beliczai about the Food Saving Project and volunteering. Bea first got involved as a delivery volunteer but she has been also active in the project’s coordination since last year, assisting the two projects leads.

What made you join the project? Where did you first hear about the initiative? What made you to choose this type of volunteering?

Bea: Food waste is a problem that I have found myself coming back to for a while yet I felt pretty much helpless. It is shocking to see how much food ends up in the trash bin day by day while hunger is still widespread. I thought the two endpoints would just need to be linked somehow yet obviously food waste is a complex issue. I was thrilled when I first read an article about the project: there is a group who actually works on rescueing food and getting it to those in need. I felt immensely empowered and has been an active member of the project team since November 2018.

Jean-Louis: It has been around 4 years since I first came across Budapest Bike Maffia online. First I got involved in the Vitamin Commando project: I found the idea of connecting biking and helping others ingenious. I got truly inspired and founded the ’+1 sandwich – students for those in need’ project within the Gustave Eiffel French Primary and Secondary School 3 years ago. I have been also active in the Food Saving Project for 2 years, helping deliver leftover catering food to homeless shelters.

What is your day job?

Bea: When I first applied I was a stay-at-home mom with my two and a half year old son. I believed it would absolutely make sense to get started in delivering food with him. I was right! What is more, my little one exceeded expectations in all means and was keen on helping me: he could not wait to carry boxes and push the teacart with me. Since he started the kindergarden, I have had more time to run my own projects (publishing books) and also had the chance to take on extra responsibilities at the Food Saving project.

Jean-Louis: I have been retired for 3 years so I could dedicate more time to serve charitable causes. In the last 14 years of my career, I worked in the leadership of the French secondary school; before that, I had been a language tutor at the French Institute.

How does food delivery actually involve? How do you get all the vital information as to when, what and where to the food shall be delivered, including the handover administration?

Jean-Louis: We get key delivery information on the shared online platform of Food Saving: when, where and how many portions of food need to be picked up. The delivery volunteers may see this and whoever commits first picks up the food. We decide ourselves which homeless shelter we take the food to. I have got 4-5 addresses in mind where I drop by on a regular basis as there is always tremendous need for food. Once delivery is done, I let the group know on the shared platform how many portions and to where I delivered, and share photos on the actual handover.

Tell us more about the back office responsibilites of the project. Three of you are responsible for coordination: what does it take to run things smoothly?

Bea: Judit and Dóri, the actual leaders of the project do the great bulk of the work. I am honored to be able to assist them as part of the coordination team. The back office tasks I have been taking care of are very similar to those I had done before for more than 15 years: I was in charge of finding and securing shooting locations for movies, in constant communication with crew members. Likewise, my responsibilities in the project involve round-the-clock communication with donors and delivery volunteers – I am in troubleshooting mode at all times. Last minute changes, such as there is more leftover food than the donors expected and it does not fit into the volunteers’ cars, do occur. These situations require you to think on your feet and challenge your creativity: it would be very frustrating not being able to pick up a donation due to coordination glitches. Fortunately this has not occured yet.

Does delivery always go as expected?

Bea: There have been no major surprises when it comes to delivery. Yet seeing how enthusiastic my son was to take part and help in the whole delivery process was a brand new and awe-inspiring experience. I would have loved to have a few words with those who got the donations but I think it is better just to step back and stay humble: I am happy to take good care of the delivery and glad to see that the food got to those who needed it the most.

Jean-Louis: In my experience, donors are happy to give the excess food to those in need and it also makes the shelter residents’ day. Cannot get better than this.

What inspires and keeps you going as a volunteer?

Jean-Louis: My greatest drive is to help others in need. Yet the +1 sandwich project in the school also has an educational mission. We have middle-class students for whom poverty and marginalized communities, such as homelessness, is unknown. I have been working on an initiative to cook and serve food with a few volunteer students and parents in a day shelter. I already have a smaller partner organization in mind that has experience in such projects and warmly welcomed our idea.

Bea: Wasting food makes no sense at all – that is my primary motivation. Picture this: while there is a ton of food left at an fancy feast somewhere in Budapest, many in need gather at a homeless shelter that night, near the venue, with nothing to eat. Although there is only a few kilometers between them, the leftover food never reaches those suffering from hunger: it is discarded into the trash bin. This is exactly what the Food Saving project has been created for: with responsible donors, this would less likely happen again.

Photo: István Juhász