The Tarilka team. Photo courtesy of Tarilka.

Ukraine’s first ecofood bank tackles both the country’s mountain of garbage and rising poverty levels.

On average, every Ukrainian produces almost 300 kilograms of trash a year, and 94 percent of it ends up in landfills. At least 7 million tons of food, worth some 160 million euros, are thrown away annually.

The same applies to supermarkets, restaurants, and service industries: the law does not require them to recycle or donate their unsold food, so they simply get rid of it by throwing it out.

This massive waste of potentially usable food continues despite the worsening economic situation and the growing poverty due to the pandemic and lockdown restrictions: a survey by the Social Monitoring Center in December found that 52 percent of respondents said their financial situation deteriorated last year.

Although the government stressed that businesses still had to pay their employees regardless of the first lockdown, many were simply unable to do so. For instance, 10 percent of small and medium businesses reportedly were close to bankruptcy and one-third of all businesses earned less than they spent in 2020. 

Pandemic Leads to Food Scarcity 

“Previously, we used to see mostly homeless or older people using our services. Now [since the pandemic], it’s young people, too, and so much more of those who used to work and earn. It is heartbreaking,” Rostyslav Kosyura says.

Kosyura is the founder of Tarilka, or Plate in Ukrainian, the first food bank in Ukraine that combines social and ecological missions. Tarilka helps distribute supermarket food that is about to expire to needy people in Lviv, the metropolis of western Ukraine. It also promotes healthier consumption to reduce waste. 

After only a few months of work, the organization had attracted 40 regular volunteers who deliver food to those in need. During the first lockdown, the amount of calls  increased to 40 a day, and young people were often the ones asking for groceries.

“We were not used to this: now, we are contacted by young people left with no income, or after being fired because their companies shut down,” Kosyura adds.

A migrant himself, Kosyura was born in Ukraine, but lived in Germany and France for most of his life. He returned to his birth country in 2019, after his father’s death. 

In addition to running Tarilka, Kosyura, 30, is a successful entrepreneur: he founded a recruiting agency that matches IT professionals with companies. He says visits to food banks in Germany inspired him to do something similar in Lviv.

“After living in Ukraine for a few months, I realized that many people had no savings, so they don’t have anything to live off in times like these,” he says.

His wife, Olesya, a journalist from Lviv, was the project’s first volunteer, and soon, others joined the project. 

“My homeland is in such a bad situation that I could not just sit, drink my tea, and wait in Germany until the situation got better in Ukraine,” Kosyura says. “I returned because there are so many things that need to be done.”

Tackling the Effects

The initiative originally aimed to address the waste issue: the world’s ninth-largest waste producer, Ukraine generates 500 million tons of garbage annually and recycles just 3 percent of it.

In 2019, Tarilka launched a pilot project working with a dozen different stores in Lviv. The city produces 500-600 tons of garbage a day, Mayor Andriy Sadovy said in 2017. In two weeks, they managed to save one ton of food that was later distributed. 

The initiative works on donations and is run by volunteers. In the last year, Tarilka raised approximately 110,000 hryvnias (3,250 euros) by crowdfunding, in addition to 10,000 euros from local businesses and individuals. With the money, the organization bought a car to deliver food and is currently finalizing the renovation of a warehouse to use as a physical food bank.

Local businesses donated construction material, windows, tools, and other equipment needed to finish the renovation. However, with lockdown restrictions in place, the organization decided to remain mobile: picking up food and immediately distributing it to organizations that work with vulnerable groups. 

“Even before Tarilka, I tried to consume conscientiously,” says Olena Teryokhina, a volunteer who helps distribute food to centers for the elderly and other recipients. “I hope more people will become aware of their consumption and waste production, but there is a lot we can improve.”

Teryokhina learned about Tarilka at the start of the pandemic when Ukraine went into lockdown, a time when things became really difficult for many businesses and individuals. Stores and restaurants could not sell all their food, and many people could no longer afford it.

Volunteers drive delivery vehicles, pick up food from the source, and distribute it. Other unpaid staff include grant managers, social media and communications professionals, and project planners.

Anna Didyk, another volunteer, joined when the initiative started in the fall of 2019, and now oversees the work of some 40 volunteers.

Tarilka currently works with the three largest supermarket chains in Lviv as well as restaurants, food, and delivery companies. International brands such as Auchan and Nestle cooperate with the group, as does the Ukrainian retailer Rukavychka. They donate food they don’t sell, but which is still consumable. The volunteers then distribute the products to social service organizations and other, smaller, NGOs.

Didyk keeps in touch with participating stores and other clients and tracks when and where to pick up donations, then maps out the day’s pickups and deliveries for volunteers.

The initiative works with several groups including NGOs that care for large families, homeless families, medics who work with COVID patients, and other vulnerable groups like former addicts. They also distribute food to social centers run by the local government. These organizations previously did not distribute food products, a major gap Tarilka partially fills.

Around 15 large boxes of food are donated daily – around a ton of food. Some NGOs don’t work with Tarilka because it is difficult to predict what kind of food will be donated, and how much. The food bank works mostly with those organizations whose main focus is not solely meal distribution, but other kinds of support. For them, Tarilka provides an additional service. 

Families in Need

“We had situations when people asked about certain products,” Olha Yarmolyuk says. “Everyone’s lives got harder after the pandemic.”

Yarmolyuk heads a regional organization called “Happy Family,” which supports households with three and more children.

The organization works closely with Tarilka, redistributing food donations to large families in Lviv.

“During the quarantine, a lot of families needed more help,” she says. “Sometimes, only one parent works, and with the quarantine, it may be that both are out of work.”

Yarmolyuk’s organization represents the ultimate beneficiaries of the food bank – the families that have been battered by many economic and social crises that have struck Ukraine in recent years. She notes that not every large family seeks products from Tarilka, but the support is there if they need it.

“Some people are worried about the food,” she says. “They are not sure about the quality and don’t want to take things that might be rotten or potentially bad for their health.

“We are a bit scared to take ready-made products such as salads,” she goes on. “But with bread, it’s wrong to throw it away even if it’s not freshly baked because you can always make something with it. I think families find a good use for those foods.”

The organization picks up food donations from Tarilka once a week for deliver either to its office or directly to different parts of Lviv. Volunteers then inform families that food can be picked up during a set time.

Yarmolyuk herself is a mother of three; she says she joined Happy Family around 18 months ago because she wanted to help families like her own.

The Power of Cooperation

“The first months of Tarilka were basically door-to-door visits to different organizations. We explained to supermarket managers and owners what a food bank is,” Kosyura says.

Through his wife, Rostyslav started meeting with business owners and city leaders and explaining his idea to them. At first, he made cold calls to potential partners.

Most supermarkets supported the idea, he says, primarily because they were already looking for similar solutions themselves, and also because of the good PR that Tarilka provides them.

“The supermarkets thought there was no alternative to throwing away food, but there is,” he says.

One large chain, Rukavychka, joined the initiative right after its launch.

“We have two employees who check some of the product sections in the supermarkets at the end of each day,” says Nataliya Yankevych, a manager there.

She explains that the employees fill boxes for Tarilka daily with dairy products, fruit, baked goods, and other foods.

“We sell these products only on the first day, and on the second day, we give them away. They are still perfectly good to eat, but we cannot sell them,” she adds.

Rukavychka and other partners get good publicity – they are promoted via Tarilka’s social media platforms and Tarilka gives them special stickers to display at store entrances.

Searching for Sustainability

Tarilka has the backing of the Lviv city government – although, so far, its support is more symbolic than real.

“We have been talking about the unused food problem for a few years,” says Andriy Moskalenko, deputy mayor for development issues, “It’s important that a person appeared who said, ‘Fine, I can take care of this.’ ”

“We’re willing to help when needed,” Moskalenko adds, although he admits the city lacks funds for financial support. 

Tarilka also helps Lviv to tackle a big waste management issue: for a while, the city had nowhere to throw away its trash, including organics. Its last landfill caught fire four years ago, and now the city sends its waste to other regions, although a recycling plant due to be complete by 2022 will help reduce the city’s waste footprint.

Funding for the recycling plant is through a loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and a grant from ecological organizations. After two years of talks with potential contractors, in October 2020 the city finally agreed on terms with a Dutch-Lithuanian consortium to build the plant. In the meantime, Lviv has opened small-scale recycling and waste-separation facilities running pilot projects in different districts. 

As noted above, during the pandemic, Tarilka has served as a middleman, picking up food from stores and distributing it to groups that work directly with the needy. Now they are looking into ways to change the mode of work from mobile to in-house. 

The city council provided the food bank with a warehouse at a symbolic rent of less than 10 euros a year. However, the building was in bad condition, so Tarilka raised funds to renovate it through a crowdfunding campaign and several large donations from individuals in Ukraine and abroad.

The warehouse renovation is ongoing, and sometime this year, the plan is to move operations there and open a permanent food bank where people can pick up the food they need. 

The next step is to expand the project to the rest of Ukraine. There is interest from some other cities in western Ukraine, although no firm expansion plans are in place, Didyk, the volunteer supervisor, says. 

Kosyura and colleagues envision growing the network using the same method that has proved successful in Lviv: building a core group of volunteers and reaching out to local government and business.

Basing a project on volunteer effort can be self-limiting, however. Once the warehouse/store opens, Tarilka may charge shoppers a small entrance fee of around 30 cents to help with the rent and utilities.

Fighting the Cause, Not the Consequences

Food banks are important, but they tackle the consequences of the waste problem instead of its roots, Iryna Myronova says. She heads an NGO called Zero Waste Lviv.

“On the one hand, food banks are a great initiative, but it is also important to understand that the main objective is to reduce waste in supermarkets and restaurants,” says Myronova.

According to her, supermarkets cannot justify their wasteful practices by donating their unsold products, and the food bank needs to build its business model so as not to be dependent on a constant stream of products.

“Food banks should be ready for when the service and trade industries cut their waste chains,” she says.

Kosyura agrees that distributing unsold food is just one part of Tarilka.

“We need new technologies and new thinking about our behavior with food. Our organization has a sub-project called ‘Green Company’ which focuses on this issue,” he says. Green Company provides consulting and B2B services for companies hoping to become more sustainable and shrink their environmental footprint. On a wider scale, he adds, the aim is to raise awareness about food waste and inspire consumers to throw away less, as well as to help those in need, especially during a crisis like the COVID pandemic.

In the short run, another objective is to improve forecasting of how much food supermarkets are likely to deliver so as to smooth out the distribution cycle. This will also help stores cut down their purchases and facilitate cooperation among different stores, Kosyura says.

This part is something that needs improvement, but as Kosyura points out, Tarilka is still a work in progress.

Anna Romandash is an award-winning journalist from Ukraine. She has worked with Radio Free Europe, Euronews, and the Kyiv Post among others, and is a digital fellow at CNN.

This article originally appeared in Ukrainian on the website Ukrainska pravda.