En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists seek greener Ra­madan

Food waste spikes dur­ing the Mus­lim holy month

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - BELIEF - By Aysha Khan RE­LI­GION NEWS SER­VICE

Neekta Hamidi usu­ally gets a few strange looks when she sits down for an if­tar, the evening meal that breaks the Ra­madan fast, at her mosque in Bos­ton.

Her fel­low wor­ship­pers are dig­ging into dis­pos­able plates piled with rice and meat. Her meal, though, is in a re­us­able glass Tup­per­ware con­tainer. Next to her sits a re­us­able spork and ther­mos.

“Bring­ing my own re­us­able dishes is such a sim­ple thing to do, but it makes a dif­fer­ence in my en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print,” said Hamidi, who holds a grad­u­ate de­gree in en­vi­ron­men­tal health from Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity and blogs about her min­i­mal-waste lifestyle.

Ra­madan, when Mus­lims fast from sun­rise to sun­set, is meant to be a month of sim­plic­ity and spir­i­tu­al­ity. But at mosques around the coun­try, Hamidi said, garbage bags typ­i­cally over­flow with dis­pos­able cups, half-filled wa­ter bot­tles and half-eaten plates of rice and meat.

A re­port by Qatari sus­tain­abil­ity ad­vo­cacy group EcoMENA es­ti­mated that one-fourth of food pre­pared for some­times lav­ish Ra­madan if­tars ends up in the trash. In Malaysia, of­fi­cials say more than 270,000 tons of food are thrown away dur­ing Ra­madan. Dubai of­fi­cials say food ac­counts for up to 38 per­cent of do­mes­tic waste — a num­ber that can spike past 55 per­cent in Ra­madan. In Abu Dhabi, food waste jumps 10 per­cent in the holy month, lead­ing the gov­ern­ment to ask res­i­dents to cut if­tar por­tion sizes.

Such stag­ger­ing sta­tis­tics have caused a slow awak­en­ing about food waste. Last year, a waste-con­scious if­tar in Lon­don used pri­mar­ily in­gre­di­ents that su­per­mar­kets usu­ally dis­card; this year Lon­don mosques will host sev­eral plas­tic-free if­tars. Three years ago, Dubai be­gan us­ing elec­tronic con­tain­ers to mea­sure the amount of waste pro­duced in Ra­madan. In Saudi Ara­bia, the Etaam food bank ini­tia­tive launched a cam­paign to en­cour­age food preser­va­tion at Ra­madan tents, ho­tels and restau­rants.

“The mod­ern pat­tern of over­con­sump­tion and waste­ful­ness has never fit into Is­lam,” said Tam­mara Soma, co-founder of Toronto’s Food Sys­tems Lab. “The Prophet Muham­mad said if you have food for one per­son, it’s enough for two. If you have food for two peo­ple, it’s enough for four.”

Now, in the U.S., too, lead­ers at mosques and Is­lamic cen­ters are rolling out ini­tia­tives to lead their com­mu­ni­ties to­ward a zero-waste Ra­madan — or at least a min­i­mal-waste one.

At home, Hamidi aims for zero-waste if­tars: She avoids plas­tic, buys food with­out pack­ag­ing when­ever pos­si­ble, com­posts left­overs and uses re­us­able dishes. “I al­ways count the num­ber of plates in my cabi­net and then send out my guest list,” she said with a laugh.

It’s a lit­tle more chal­leng­ing to make that hap­pen at the mosque-wide level.

“You know how it is dur­ing Ra­madan,” said Pay­man Amiri, one of the founders of the Is­lamic Cul­tural Cen­ter of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. “Peo­ple are a lot hun­grier than their stom­ach will ac­tu­ally al­low them to eat.”

In­deed, some ex­perts sug­gest that short-term fast­ing might stunt the ap­petite. Af­ter hours of ab­stain­ing from food or drink, wor­ship­pers am­bi­tiously over­fill their plates, only to dump the ma­jor­ity into the trash as they rush off to com­plete their evening prayers.

One rec­om­men­da­tion is to ask mosques not to serve if­tar meals in over­flow­ing prepacked con­tain­ers. In­stead, the ICCNC and other mosques now have vol­un­teers serve the food, dol­ing out half-por­tions to every­one and of­fer­ing smaller plates to chil­dren. Wor­ship­pers are en­cour­aged to come for sec­onds and thirds, rather than get their en­tire if­tar at once.

To go a step fur­ther, Hamidi rec­om­mends first fill­ing up on plant-based foods, such as salad and lentils, be­fore grab­bing carbs and meat. If you ac­ci­den­tally load up, Hamidi rec­om­mends set­ting up a com­post.

Lance Che­ung / USDA

Pa­per plates are used at if­tar buf­fets around the world.

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