Food for Thought at DiscoShuk in Tel Aviv

Some, mainly young, Israelis are waking up 
to the fact that the world is running out 
of food − and wasting far too much.

Tomer Appelbaum

The success of last Wednesday’s DiscoShuk event surpassed its organizers’ expectations. Hundreds of hungry visitors clustered around the food stands at the Tel Aviv Port, waiting in long lines.

One might argue that the crowds came because the Israeli of 2014 adores celebrity chefs, and even more, that they adore free food. In this case it bears stressing that the hundreds of kilograms of food distributed to visitors had been made of ingredients destined for the garbage − shreds of tomatoes, products past their expiry date, dry bread from bakeries and the remains of cheese. Yet the beautiful people herded to the stands, to the extent that in less than an hour, a harried volunteer told the organizers she feared the food was running out.

The concept behind the happy event was deadly serious, even urgent. The global food industry is using up the resources and land of the planet, and with the global population growing as it is, the food will run out.

One simple way to tackle the problem is to reduce waste in the West. The website World Food Clock  presents the frightening amount of food being wasted every second around the globe. The site’s figures for last night showed that during 10 seconds, 1,268 tons of food were produced around the world − of which 412 were wasted.

The brain behind the event is Shir Halpern, a partner in the Tel Aviv Farmers Market at the port and in Slow Food, a movement that has been fighting “fast food” since the 1980s and urges the preservation of original tasting foods versus industrialization. Two months ago Halpern went to the movement’s convention in Italy and discovered that alongside the “sleepy” Slow Food movement, as she puts it, a livelier Slow Food movement had arisen, consisting of young people who had also been involved in the European social protests in recent years. Halpern immediately decided to set up an Israeli branch.

The DiscoShuk event, actually a mass meal made of leftover scraps-cum-party, was the first venture by the young people of Slow Food Israel.

For all the hard work, Halpern’s gratified. “It’s mad,” she sums up during the event itself, as we look at the long lines that totally conceal the chefs. “More people came here than to the original disco event in Korea. The Brussels event was also smaller. I was skeptical. At first I figured 50 people would show up.”

Only one thing disappoints her: The Slow Food people abroad know that food is eaten with the hands, in order not to waste plates and cutlery. In Israel, everyone, including the clueless Haaretz writer, tried to find plates, forks and knives, and didn’t grasp the offense.

“Even so, I saw some people eat from their bread or turn cabbage leaves into plates,” she says proudly, helping me with my position in the long line. I win a pretty dry piece of bread with cheese and cabbage jam. It was very impressive.

Another difference Halpern noticed is that abroad, after disco events, there’s food left over for the needy. She didn’t see that happening, but vows it will next time.

In the year 2050

Upon returning with the idea two months ago, she talked with fellow Slow Foodie Shai Schevach, who organized the event with her friends.

“Slow Food is an aging organization that deals with raw materials and heavy issues. Their younger branch kicks harder, is more activist in nature,” says Schevach. “We define ourselves as wanting to drive social change through food. Today people are defined by what they eat. It’s an opportunity to change the world’s life through food.”

By the year 2050, the world will have 9 billion people, according to some predictions. “If the waste persists, we’ll need to expand resources by 60% to produce enough food,” Schevach says. “If we reduce waste, we’ll only need 25% more. We can influence the future.”

DiscoShuk isn’t for the billion hungry people in the world: It’s for the three billion who waste food, Schevach says. “That’s where change has to come from.”

Every chef they asked agreed to cook for the party, she says. We continue to talk while walking on a board, under which old bread is wrapped in newspaper − a strange technique to revive them. “It’s a hit. We didn’t call the media, they just came,” she says. Then we have to move because a cook who needed bread showed up.

One of the partners in the project is Haim Yosef, usually a food photographer. His entire experience of food photography is centered on waste, he admits. “As far as I’m concerned this event is just a single point of the real thing, which is to expose the waste. It’s just a means.”

He also finds more meaning in the youngsters’ Slow Food organization than in the original one: “Slow Food was set up by people who miss slow food from the home. We came to change, not to be nostalgic. Our generation has less of an idea of what local food is.”

Save the ugly vegetables

One visitor is Ori Sapojnikov, who’s just finishing a salad. “I was at the beach, so I came,” she says. “I think it’s important for people to save the sorry vegetables that people don’t want to buy because they’re ugly − and it’s also this thing about saving the planet and eating healthy,” she says. “From now on, before throwing out food we should think that’s it’s a shame because there are hungry people in Africa.”

On one of the lines, I meet an Indian tourist named Avisek. We discuss hunger in India. “The truth is I don’t know how much events like these can help,” he says. I try to pursue the conversation but his turn comes and he goes off to get food.

Yair Erez, 9, from Be’erot, says he just ate a squashed sandwich. Asked why the event matters, he says, “Because my aunt organized it.” He turns out to be Schevach’s nephew. His little sister Hadar is more practical: “The event teaches that we don’t have to throw out vegetables and fruit. They should be reused.”

Most of the visitors are young, but Kochava Or Hen, 60, of Holon is also there. She heard about it on TV. “I left the cleaning and dusting and hurried over,” she says. “It’s a great idea to eat food instead of throwing it out. I also try not to throw out food.”

“Why aren’t there any donation boxes anywhere?” somebody next to us wonders.

There are the critics. “The idea is a good one and got a lot of likes on Facebook,” says an activist who declines to be named. “But it’s silly to hold the event here, at the Tel Aviv Port, not for instance on Levinsky Street, an area where there are hungry people. What’s happening here is rich people are getting free food.”

Tomer Appelbaum