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Meet the High School Students Leading the Fight Against Hanoi’s Food Waste

High school pupils are perhaps not who you’d expect to see running an established volunteer organization in a capital city. When it comes to tackling food waste and shortages, however, a group of young Hanoian students are operating at the very forefront of these issues.

In a packed coffee shop, I met with Van Anh Thi Nguyen and Giang Huong Nguyen, the President and Deputy President of Hanoi Food Rescue (HFR). It’s an organization that’s been set up entirely by students, and their impact on local communities so far has been nothing short of remarkable. They are already in their seventh year, and the group consists of 40 permanent members and a further 50 volunteers.

At the heart of the group are two clear goals: the first is preventing food waste, and the second is redistributing food to those in need. When asked if one goal outstripped the other in terms of importance, 17-year-old Van Anh explained that “each carries equal weight” and aid the overall objective of “creating a food bank.” By this, she means forming a stockpile of food that can be offered to those who are struggling to provide for themselves. She added that it’s essential the food they redistribute would otherwise be considered surplus, a comment that typified the reasoned and insightful nature I came to expect from the group.

A group of volunteers collecting food ready to be donated.

Evidently, HFR is not some sort of glorified school project — the scale and organization that goes into the group is exceptional. They work directly with a host of third parties to gather and provide food, and categorize these groups into either ‘input’ or ‘output.’ While a range of high-end hotels and corporations make up the input, a network of hospitals across the capital form the output. The group donates leftover food from hotel restaurants and business canteens to Hanoi’s poor — more specifically, to two hospitals for children and those with cancer. They make daily deliveries from Monday to Saturday, and run two major annual events: one in August and another during the Lunar New Year. For Tet last year, the group arranged for hundreds of gifts and supplies to be given to children in Lao Cai Province.

Through helping others, group members also gain valuable experience that can aid their future careers. For organization member Binh, 16, one of her proudest moments was working with VTV to arrange coverage of the group and gain attention to their cause. The experience not only provided valuable exposure for their group, but also gave her valuable insight into public relations, a career path she intends to pursue.

Binh is one of 50 or more students who are arranged into small groups of volunteers to distribute collected food. Each has around five members and is assigned its own leader. The groups rotate daily to ensure one team goes out each day between 2-4pm. This timing is chosen to ensure the food is distributed while still fresh, and allows the volunteers to get back for extra classes in the afternoon.

One afternoon, I met with Binh and her team of three other students outside Hotel de l’Opera. Guest passes were issued before the team led me to the kitchen where food was waiting for them. The students donned gloves and divided a selection of cold meats, salads, fruit and cakes into around 20 polystyrene boxes. While they worked, Binh told me about their longstanding relationship with the hotel. The group has had to build up trust with its providers, many of whom were initially skeptical of working with them. Now, they run a smooth operation; within a few minutes, we were back outside and ready for the second stage of the operation.

K Hospital patients receiving food donations.

We took a short journey across town to reach their output for the day: Hanoi’s K Hospital. As one of the capital’s main cancer treatment centers, they assist patients from all sectors of society. For Van Anh, her motivation to form a partnership with the hospital drew from her own personal experiences. As the daughter of a doctor, she grew up “seeing patients who were suffering from not having enough food.”

The students have worked hard to establish a fair system for patients to collect the food. Those who wish to receive donations must register and show their ID to collect meals. The reality at the hospital, however, was very different from what I witnessed back at the hotel. Shortly after the students arrived, people began to approach from all directions: patients in hospital gowns, others in regular clothing, and only some with ID. The food was gone in no time, leaving some to go without. With fewer food boxes than people, it’s simply a case of first come, first served. Binh told me later that the hardest part is when she is asked for food but has nothing left. At this point, she simply “doesn’t know what to say.”

It may not be a perfect system, and the use of polystyrene boxes is not ideal, but it’s a promising initiative nonetheless. Group members are very mature for their age, from planning the trips right down to distributing the food itself, they work independently and face challenges with little to no outside support. Van Anh told me that while a parent organization had overseen activities in the beginning, for now, at least, they operate alone.

Volunteer groups of this kind are still a fairly new concept in Vietnam. Deputy President Giang told me of her pride in doing something “unique” that was, when they first began, one of the first of its kind. When I asked about their families, she said that, while they were supportive, it wasn’t something they had ever been involved in themselves. They also added that volunteers have been seen as strange in Vietnam, and are only now becoming more common.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that these students are the ones leading HFR, and not others. These are Vietnamese benefiting from living in a vastly different world to the one their elders knew. The country’s economy has prospered massively over the last 30 years, with per capita income rising from US$98 in 1993 to US$2,000 in 2015. In 2018, Vietnam was ranked as one of the fastest-growing economies by The Economist, and as the economy develops, so too does education, technology and, ideally, society’s ability to help those less fortunate.

The students involved in HFR echoed this point. Van Anh added: “Young people have access to the media and are becoming more aware of problems,” while Binh suggested that rising wealth gave students the chance to take part in benevolent volunteer groups. Those taking part in HRF may have varying motivations for being involved but, put simply, they also have the opportunity to do something about the issues the group addresses. As Vietnam marches into a new era, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the country's youth taking some of the greatest strides in enacting change.  

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