‘A thousand blessings’: How the UAE Food Bank is a lifeline for people in need

A staggering 70 million meals have been distributed in the UAE and overseas since a huge effort to redistribute excess food began seven years ago

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On a quiet Ramadan evening just before sunset, groups of workers are seated on rows of plastic sheets laid out across Dubai’s Zabeel Park as volunteers distribute steaming hot biryani.

“Our blessings go to the people who made this, a thousand dua [blessings] for them,” said Ahmed Hussain, a Bangladeshi car wash worker who takes on part-time delivery jobs at night.

The iftar meals are part of the UAE Food Bank's "One thousand meals” cooking programme, for which chefs cook rice, chicken strips and vegetables in enormous vats in the park and in Hatta every day during the holy month, as part of its goal to provide five million meals to those in need.

It is just one example of a wide-ranging initiative that brings together volunteers, chefs, hotels, farms, supermarkets, companies and charities.

In the summer when I’m very tired and hungry, this food is a blessing
Alam, delivery rider from Pakistan

The organisations are part of a vast network set up and managed by the Food Bank that distributed 18 million meals last year and 70 million meals in the UAE and overseas since it was launched in 2017.

Volunteers collect surplus food such as vegetables, rice and meat that would otherwise be thrown away and work with charities to turn them into cooked meals.

These meals and food kits containing cooking oil, rice, lentils, dates and canned food are distributed around the year in workers’ accommodations.

Money saved will support families back home

When The National visited during iftar, men and women stood in a long line that snaked across the park’s green grass to receive boxes packed with biryani, laban, water and dates.

“Sometimes my salary is not enough, sometimes food is not enough. I must send money home for my wife and children when I get jobs,” said Ishan Khan, a gardener from Pakistan.

“In some places like Sonapur, they give food every day. When I don’t make money, this helps me.”

He was referring to similar queues that form in workers’ housing units in the Dubai districts of Muhaisnah, Sonapur and Al Quoz where food packets are distributed.

In the nearby workers’ building complex in Muhaisnah, some men and women waiting to receive hot rice, chicken and vegetables said the meals were their lifeline.

Several of the men have part-time jobs and some said they were in between jobs.

Others said they didn’t depend on the meals but that they helped them save money that would go to their families back home.

The workers usually earn between Dh1,000 and Dh2,500 and send home more than half of their earnings to provide for their family, pay for their children’s education and to settle loans.

“In the summer when I’m very tired and hungry, this food is a blessing,” said Alam, a delivery rider from Pakistan.

“We come here so our family lives well. We earn for our family. This country and these people will get our dua (blessings).”

The campaign to feed the needy steps up during Ramadan with the aim of saving excess food from being thrown away.

The UAE Food Bank saved more than 908,145kg of food from landfill during Ramadan last year.

This year during Ramadan, Sheikha Hind bint Maktoum, the wife of the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, launched the campaign to provide five million meals to those in need.

Last year, more than five million meals were provided during Ramadan, far exceeding the bank's target of three million.

All year round

The bank works with charity groups to collect and preserve leftover food from more than 350 hotels and companies.

The programme is a key part of efforts to reduce food waste by 30 per cent by 2027.

“We deal with charities because they know which people need help, we send the food directly to the labour camps,” Manal Bin Yaroof, head of the executive team of the UAE Food Bank, told The National.

“We know that, unfortunately, waste increases during Ramadan and that’s why we focus our initiatives at this time.

“But it’s not only during Ramadan, food is given to labourers on a daily basis.”

About 40 per cent of food is wasted in the UAE, costing Dh6 billion each year, according to a survey released last year during Cop28 by the National Food Loss and Waste Initiative, Ne’ma, and the Behavioural Science Group.

The UAE Food Bank is also working with farms and recycling groups to turn waste scraps into compost that is distributed to farmers.

It runs awareness programmes in government departments, companies and schools to spread the word not to waste food.

The work has made an impact on the lives of senior officials, who share the message with friends and family.

“On a personal level it changed my lifestyle,” Ms Bin Yaroof said.

“It changed my behaviour towards food. We need to reduce food waste as families when we buy food.

“I tell people and make sure that my family buys an amount that is suitable for us.”

The non-profit charitable organisation is the first food bank in the county and was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives.

The Dubai Municipality oversees safety, with regular monitoring of the food during transport, storage and distribution.

The bank also works with the Emirates Red Crescent and has delivered food to earthquake survivors in Syria and Turkey.

There are six food banks in the UAE where supplies are collected and distributed, in Dubai’s Al Quoz, Muhaisnah and Jebel and in Ras Al Khaimah, Ajman and Umm Al Quwain.

“We don’t take cooked meals from homes but deal with big restaurants and hotels who have a large quantity that can be reused,” Ms Bin Yaroof said.

“We partner with charities so meals and donated food on a daily basis goes to labour camps and also to the fridges.”

Stocking fridges

The food bank has set up hundreds of fridges across the country which companies and residents can stock with food for the needy.

Outside the Lulu Village supermarket in Muhaisnah, a fridge is stocked daily by the store with bread, fruit, dates, water and yoghurt.

Customers often add items to the shelves on their way out.

Mohammad, a restaurant worker from Egypt, particularly needed the food when he was between jobs.

“Life is expensive here but I get jobs and when I work I have enough to eat,” he said.

“I usually take fruit and laban from the fridge – that is too costly for me to buy. I have a wife and young children at home and my money must go to them.”

Maintenance workers set aside ladders and pails of paint to stop by the fridge to pick up water and juice.

Ahmed, a worker from India, said he did not rely on the fridge for daily food but that it supported him after a long shift.

“We are labourers and sometimes we have no money when we are hungry, this helps to feed us,” he said.

“My life has gone in feeding my family, for my children’s studies and when someone falls ill. This gives me food and juice I can’t afford.”

Companies have come to the table keen to be part of the project.

More than seven tonnes of potatoes, tomatoes, onions and capsicum from the David and Goliath farms in Ajman was donated towards the meals this year.

“I plan to do this every year – give vegetables and greens to those in need,” said Lal Bhatia, the farm’s founder, who volunteered to cook meals during Ramadan.

“When people look at Dubai and Abu Dhabi, they see the tall buildings and the best infrastructure.

“But who makes this? It’s these workers and this programme helps us focus on them.

“These are the guys who drive the engine and when we feed that engine, the UAE can only become better.”

Updated: April 10, 2024, 6:54 AM