Teenage girls create food bank for disabled children in Vietnam

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A boy at Hoa Binh village for disabled children in Hanoi receives a bag of treats at a food bank created by a group of high school girls.

Duong Thach Thao and her friends thought about giving up after receiving nothing but disapproving grimaces from restaurant and store owners in Hanoi upon asking them to donate their leftover food to charity.

The teenage girls said it was a long hard road to establishing their food bank for 150 disabled children in Hoa Binh (Peace) Village, who used to cry at meals as they saw a little rice, a little soup and two pieces of meat pie every single day.

Thao said the group has gone through a lot of discouragement at the start.

Some people called their mission to give extra food to others "inhuman."

Even when they understood that the group intended to donate unsold foodstuffs, critics doubted the high school girls' ability to maintain the food's quality until it reached its beneficiaries, fearing that failures to do so would be both counterproductive and also damage the reputations of participating restaurants.

The six 11th graders from the Education University and Hanoi Amsterdam High School for Gifted Students solicited 40 restaurants and stores.

At many, they were called "uncommitted" children and their project was called "a joke," "vague," and "rubbish," Thao said.

Despite all the rejection, they continued to lobby food sellers every day after school.

After recruiting volunteers studying food safety at universities, spending a lot of money buying meals in order to earn chats with restaurant owners and printing out professional pamphlets, the girls finally got five restaurants and stores to participate in their program. 

The process began late last September, when the girls participated in the Food Cross project with hopes of winning a youth leadership award from AIESEC, the world's largest student driven organization.


Ho Chi Minh City samaritans serve poor, students lunch for 10 cents

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But several weeks into the project, the girls began seeing themselves as food distributors and the award became less important.

Le Thanh Ngoc, a manager at the Western Food Store in Hanoi who is now among the project's supporters, said she had a lot of questions about the project in the beginning.

"I never saw anyone do that, and the children were so young and I doubted their (ability to produce) results. I also had concerns about hygiene and quality.

"But then they sent detailed emails about how they would collect, carry and deliver the food. And I was persuaded when I saw pictures of children picking up food to eat off the ground beside pictures of food being dumped into the garbage," Ngoc said.

She said it has taken her staff more time to classify the unsold foodstuffs and place them in the bags and boxes provided by the girls.

"But those small acts can help many miserable people."

Nearly 200 bags of pizza, hamburgers, sandwiches, bread, noodles, confectionaries, and also some books and toys have been delivered to the village every Wednesday and Saturday, which have become the happiest days of the week for the children there.

The girls said the project hindered their schooling in the beginning, as they spent all their time after school visiting restaurants and discussing plans.

One girl, Trinh Minh Anh, said "For nearly two months, I stayed up until three or four in the morning discussing plans with the others. My parents knew the project was meaningful but they said they wanted to forbid me from continuing it. They only eased up after seeing I was so committed to it."

They have recruited 13 volunteers and are considering organizing people from the village to fetch food from the restaurants.

The girls want their project to become more widespread and wish to pass their idea on to others.

Nguyen Cam Tu, the project's leader, said food banks are a popular charity model in many countries, though it's considered strange in Vietnam.

She said the group sees themselves as pioneers and hope that numerous food banks crop up in the country.

The project has not only brought joy and nourishment to the children at Hoa Binh Village, but has also changed the group's members themselves.

Thao said she has learned to be more responsible with food.

"I used to never finish my meals, either at home or when I ate out. When I went to a buffet, I would take a lot of food and just leave it when I could not finish.

"Since the project, I don't dare waste food anymore."

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