Despite early controversy about its operations, the Egyptian Food Bankis determined to prove it has struck on a new way of fighting hunger.
Originally appeared in the December, 2006 issue of Egypt Today Magazine.
How long would it take to feed all the hungry people in Egypt? If you ask Dr. Reda Sukker, executive director of the Egyptian Food Bank (EFB), it could be as little as another 10 years.
Despite its October 2004 launch, the EFB rose to public prominence only in the run-up to and early days of Ramadan this year, when a local-press tempest in a teapot questioned the logic of the food bank and accused its backers of conspiring to badly treat the nation’s poor. The EFB responded with glossy public-service announcements on state-run television to educate the public about the organization and its mission.
The EFB’s goal, Sukker says, is to provide the poor and hungry with nutritious meals. Those wishing to benefit from the service can fill out an EFB application, which outlines exactly what food and how much is needed based on the individual’s dietary needs. The meals typically consist of one serving of meat, one serving of a starch (mostly rice or pasta) and a dessert. The EFB has arranged for applications to be available through several other charitable organizations, but it is not yet available on its website (www.egyptianfoodbank.com).
Seven days a week, hot or cold meals are distributed to the hungry, arriving in specially designed aluminum containers. The EFB prefers to distribute the portions raw or frozen rather than prepared, in order to cut down on the need to keep the meals warm. These meals are then delivered to the beneficiaries in the EFB’s own fleet of delivery vehicles by some of the 500 volunteers.
The controversy doesn’t stem from the philanthropic cause itself, but rather the means by which the EFB is collecting the food. The EFB’s five branches — in Alexandria, Beni Suef, Giza, Munufeyya and the main branch in Moqattam — are able to crank out an estimated three million meals every month. The meals are the product of monetary donations, as well as non-perishable packaged goods and fixed assets like transportation vehicles, storehouses and packing lines all provided by individuals and corporations.
But a portion of those meals also comes from one of Sukker’s better ideas: getting hotels in on the act. The EFB has agreements with five-star hotels including Four Seasons Sharm El-Sheikh, Hilton Luxor, El-Gouna’s M?venpick Resort and the Hurghada InterContinental Resort to help EFB volunteers distribute unused food to the nearby poor and hungry.
It was this idea that turned many people’s stomachs.
“When [hotels] have dinners, when they have parties, there’s always food left over and they would let it go to waste,” Sukker explains. “So we made an agreement with them and the food that can be redistributed goes to the poor in the areas closest to them.”
The key phrase there is “food that can be redistributed,” because foods that contain perishable ingredients like mayonnaise and some salads would not be fit for transportation to those that are hungry. It is quality control like this that Sukker sees as essential to keeping the EFB up and running.
“We need food, but we need to give the people good food,” he says. “[We can’t have] diseases or anything — because if any problems arise we won’t be able to keep giving food to the people.”
Detractors screamed loudly during the early days of the Holy Month, debating the nature of the EFB and questioning its operational procedures. Among many was an October article in the opposition daily Al-Wafd questioning the EFB’s ability to keep the food sanitary and calling the program’s hotel program a “slap in the face” to Egypt’s poor. The issue was also discussed on satellite TV and became a large enough national issue to win the attention of the influential El-Beit Beitak, state-owned Channel 2’s popular evening talk show.
“Some have questioned us for getting food from hotels,” Sukker says. “They say it’s not possible to redistribute it, that it will be full of disease. We’ve made advertisements to show these people exactly what we do: How clean the process is, how we collect, transport, clean the cars — how we make healthy food.”
Sukker got the idea to launch a food bank in Egypt from a model he saw in South Korea, as well as the numerous food banks that have been operational in North America for almost four decades. It took a year and a half’s worth of planning between the initial planning stages and the time the EFB became a reality. Sukker took his initial plans for a food bank and studied up on the poorest regions of the country, mostly in Upper Egypt, and went through agencies such as UNICEF and through public-health research before he was able to put together a working plan. After consulting legal experts and the Ministry of Social Security in Egypt, he was given the green light from the government in 2002 and started operations two years later.
One major hurdle Sukker sees is from the corporate and private sectors. He estimates that 75 percent of the donations received by the EFB come from the general public, meaning only one quarter of the donations come from corporations.
“This is a problem in Egypt,” he says. “In America there is a system that you must give about 20–25 percent of revenue to social organizations, but here — no. There’s no law here in Egypt to take money from businesses to distribute to the poor people.”
(Worth noting: Although charitable donations from corporations may be more forthcoming in the United States, there are no laws making such contributions mandatory.)
When Egyptian corporations do contribute to the EFB, according to Sukker, there are those that only use the donation for self-promotion. “Many people, when they want to donate, they want you to make a show,” he says. “He can give you one million, but one million [is] not for food. Half is for publicity and for advertising, and a little amount of the donation is for the food or the poor people.”
Sukker is quick to point out that if it’s going to happen, he needs help, and he needs it steadily over the period of time between now and 2015 — his target date for feeding all the poor in Egypt as part of the UN’s millennium development goal to decrease world poverty by half.
“I made a plan,” Sukker says. “Three or four stages — every year I need to feed one million. Another year — two million, and when you get to 2015 you can feed all people in Egypt, but I need business [leaders] to donate to feed all these people, because I give them [EFB branches] the money every month, not every year. It’s continuous.”
It’s the start-up that’s the most difficult part for any organization. Any new organization faces many hitches in its first months, according to Scott Faiia, director of the Egyptian branch of Care International, a prominent aid and development NGO. “It’s always a challenge to reach people with your message,” he says. “You need contacts and you need to communicate with the right people to get started. Getting people to act is difficult when you’re trying to get the word out there and get them to do something about it.”
Getting noticed is another task altogether, but if done properly, the work speaks for itself. “It takes time,” Faiia says. “You have to use your history and performance to help get the word out. You have to be able to clearly say ‘this is what we’ve done, this is what we intend to do, this is how we’re performing and these are our resources and how we intend to use them.’”
Keeping the whole operation funded is a challenge. Donations from individuals and from corporations need to grow from their current levels if expansion is to become a reality. According to Sukker, the donations fluctuate depending on the time of year.
“It’s different from month to month,” Sukker says. “During Ramadan we got LE 3–4 million, now it has decreased. After Eid Al-Adha it will increase again.”
It’s the organizational angle that the EFB takes most seriously, doing what they can, where they can, to keep things running as best they can. The EFB has a manual outlining its standards for how everything should be run to maintain quality and efficiency. It outlines where the food should go and how it should be distributed, as well as standards for cleanliness.
But the business of charity is a difficult one, especially when the EFB is looking for breaks from the government. “There are some problems in the laws,” Sukker says. “When we buy the food [we] must pay taxes. Why? I’m buying the food to distribute. I get no money [from it]. How can I buy with taxes increasing the price? They must let [charitable] organizations [operate without] any taxes.”
The EFB has grown from the initial LE 200,000 in public and private donations it started up with, but to accomplish its goal, it still has a long way to go. The EFB looks for continuous support from donors through its website, but as Sukker says: “The cost of feeding all the hungry people in Egypt is very high,” Sukker says. “You can’t feed everyone in Egypt in four or five years.”