Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in South Asia, is now grappling with a strange food problem. Lavish weddings that dominate its short winters are consuming massive amounts of food in a country with alarming problems of malnutrition and undernourishment.

Moin Khan, a university lecturer in the country’s capital, Dhaka, got married in December. “One thing that I did not want to have at my wedding was wastage of food,” he told Asia Times. “We were spending so much on everything, so why not research a bit more and find ways to use the excess food?”

That was how he came to know about the Prochesta Foundation, a group of volunteers involved in distributing food among homeless people and underprivileged children. Khan contacted them and told them they could collect and distribute any food left over from his wedding, which they did. “I felt good that I didn’t let the food get wasted,” Khan said.

A novel initiative

More than any other season, winter in Bangladesh – which lasts from mid-December to early-February – brings the gulf between the haves and have-nots into focus. On the one hand, there are the underfed and under-clothed, many of them shivering on the streets at night, while on the other hand there are lavish weddings.

Every year, ‘wedding season’ results in fully-booked convention centers, booming sales of gold and dresses – and tons of food wastage in a country that struggles to feed its population. Bangladesh stands 89th position in the recently published Global Food Security Index 2017, the lowest among South Asian countries.

Bangladeshi weddings, even those hosted by middle income households, do not reflect that reality, however. “One of the most disheartening sights at a wedding venue is that of kilos of food being scraped off plates into bins,” says Ikram Uddin Ahmed, the founder of Prochesta Foundation. “It’s not just leftovers – the perfectly good food that remains after the last of the workers have eaten is also thrown away. It’s sad if you consider the fact that on the same night, many thousands of kids would go to sleep on an empty stomach.”

“One of the most disheartening sights at a wedding venue is that of kilos of food being scraped off plates into bins”

The foundation runs a project titled ‘Food Bank,’ with a hotline that allows volunteers to collect food from wedding venues. “This is the first and as of now the only initiative of collecting wedding food for the poor. We have over 50 volunteers working on our Food Bank project,” says Ahmed.

The first call the foundation received was from a small community center in Khilhgaon. 
“It was May 17, 2016; I still remember the date. From then till now, we have collected wedding leftover meals good enough to feed over 60,000 people from over 250 weddings.”

Jagadish Chandra Roy, a Prochesta Foundation director who looks after the Food Bank project says it receives five or six calls per day. “Considering that the capital city alone has over 300 weddings per day during the wedding season, these numbers are still very low,” he says. Roy says the food is usually distributed among street-sleepers late at night after the food is collected. “We wake them up and most of the time they have gone to sleep on an empty stomach.”

Responsible catering

Roy explains that collecting wedding food is part of a wider campaign to initiate a responsible food culture in the country. “We are maintaining a database of how much food is being wasted at weddings. This will give researchers insights on the amount of food wasted in Bangladesh.”

To date, there has been no formal survey of how much food is actually wasted during Bangladeshi weddings. However a survey conducted by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) in collaboration with Right to Food, Bangladesh (RTF BD), in 2016, showed Bangladeshis wasting about 5.5% of total procured food every year.

Dr Nazneed Ahmed, who conducted the study, told Asia Times: “To gauge the extent of food wasted specifically at weddings, we have to carry out targeted surveys of convention centers and wedding caterers.”

Dr Sakeer Ahmed, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management of Dhaka University (DU) said one intended survey of wedding food wastage had been thwarted by a lack of funding and recalcitrant wedding caterers.

“We wake them up and most of the time they have gone to sleep on an empty stomach”

In neighboring India, there have been surveys and research on this issue. A private member’s bill titled ‘The Marriages (Compulsory Registration and Prevention of Wasteful Expenditure) 2016’ was  introduced was discussed in the lower house of India’s parliament in 2016.

Says Dr Ahmed: “The Guest Control Order 1984 of Bangladesh was introduced to regulate the number of guests at a wedding or a social gathering. But it seems barely anyone complies with this law.” Marriages are a great indicator of a person’s social and financial status, he adds. “If you have it, showing it off seems to be common. Food wastage is as a natural outcome.”

Mohammed Nasim Hossain, a managing partner of Iqbal Catering, one of Bangladesh’s largest and most in-demand catering services, says it’s hard to gauge the amount of food that is wasted. “We provide catering services all over the capital city, and with three decades of experiences I can tell you there is no such thing as an average food wastage.”

The fact that there is no RSVP for most weddings, creates a problem in making reasonable estimates, Hossain adds. “At our catering house, we have already trained our waiters about responsible catering. We trained them to monitor the tables and serve food according to the consumption at the table.” More, clearly, needs to be done on food wastage in a nation where millions are below the breadline.

The Prochesta Foundation hotline number is +8001618-002024