One local group provides food for hospital patients and homeless Vietnamese — sometimes by delivering leftovers from a restaurant. By Lien Hoang. Photo by Fred Wissink.

It’s one of the biggest conundrums of the 21st century: the world produces more than enough food to feed everyone, but millions go hungry. One can blame corruption, speculative trading of commodities like rice and soy, or mismanagement of distribution. But at the grassroots level, one Vietnamese charity is tackling a more layman’s cause: waste.

A nonprofit group called 6789 is working with Black Cat restaurant to give its leftovers to some of Ho Chi Minh City’s poorer residents. The charity had already had a history of gathering fresh food donations to prepare and give out its own meals. But now it also could collect ready-made dishes.

“When people give us vegetables and potatoes and such, it’s not ready [to be eaten],” says Dang Quoc Binh, who founded 6789 and named it after the decades in which members were born. “So when we’re getting it from a restaurant, it’s convenient, it saves us the time of cooking it.”

The group says that maintaining dignity is as important as feeding the hungry. While the food from Black Cat is as clean and intact as what it serves customers, recipients could take offense and feel they are merely getting what others do not want.

“Sometimes people are hurt if you tell them these are leftovers,” 6789 adviser Nguyen Hong Ngoc says. “So we just give the food to them, make sure it’s hot.”

Here’s how it works: after Black Cat finishes a catering gig, it sometimes has leftovers that were never served because it made too much food. Owner Geoffrey Deetz then refrigerates the remainders and calls 6789. They come the next day for pick-up, take the food back to Binh’s place to divide it up, and then hand it out. There can be anywhere from 50 to 150 servings’ worth of salads, BBQ meats, burgers, soup, brownies, goi cuon and other dishes.

Deetz says he hopes other establishments with large-scale operations will follow suit.

“I think the hotels and buffets are one of the biggest untapped sources of foods that could go to the poor,” he says. It has long bothered him that in the food industry, “there’s a tremendous amount of food wasted.”

In addition to homeless people and the working poor (such as xe om drivers and lottery ticket sellers), 6789 gives the food to hospital patients who can’t afford meals during their stays.

Roger Ferrel, who introduced 6789 to Black Cat, said patients depend on their families for food.

“If you go to FV hospital, they feed you, three meals a day,” says Ferrel, president of Kids First, which helps the disabled. “But if you go to a Vietnamese hospital, they don’t feed you.”

He adds, “Some of these family members are from far away, so they don’t have the facilities to cook for their family or for themselves, and they can’t afford to buy food. So 6789 has filled the gap.”

The charity has a list of 200 student volunteers it calls on to help distribute the food every Sunday evening. They wear black-and-orange 6789 T-shirts and take the food to different streets around Ho Chi Minh City. They choose evening, when they know the city’s lowest-income residents will be returning home from work.

Binh says feeding the hungry is just one part of his group’s mission. The other is to inspire a culture of giving among young Vietnamese, a culture he hopes will benefit future generations and other areas of social need. He has a network of nearly 2,000 online members now, many of them students who received meals and lodging from 6789 when they came into the city for university testing.

Ngoc says teaching the students is part of 6789’s activities.

“We tell the volunteers, when you give out food, you have to smile, use both hands, and say, ‘Chuc ngon mieng,’” or bon appetit, she says.

On a recent Sunday morning, about 20 members of 6789 met on the southern edge of District 1, formed smaller groups, and then dispersed in search of bottles and cardboard they could recycle for money. For meals not provided by Black Cat, 6789 relies on this money and cash donations to buy and cook food. On this morning, they visited small businesses like convenience shops to collect recyclables, handing out slips of paper to explain their activities and give contact details in case people wanted to donate later. As they walked along, some of the students would stop here and there to pick up litter.

The group also takes donations at markets, particularly food that goes into the typical meal of rice, meat, vegetables and soup. If people want to give clothing or other in-kind donations, 6789 redistributes those, as well.

To make a real dent on world hunger requires the competence of broad-minded policymakers. But in the meantime, 6789 is full of ordinary people who aren’t waiting for leaders to act.

The group 6789 can be reached at hoithiennguyen6789@yahoo.com.vn or quocbinh423@gmail.com. Its website is Hoi6789.vicongdong.vn.