Chevening scholar tackles food waste in Lebanon

Lebanon is going through a financial and economic crisis that has plunged the country into chaos. Its list of crises includes residents with restricted access to humanitarian aid, food insecurity and electricity problems. Coupled with being in the throes of a pandemic, residents of the country have not had it easy.

The World Bank called it One of the most episodes of severe crises in the world since the middle of the 19th century. Collectively, these issues have contributed to Lebanon being declared a hunger hotspot by the Food and Culture Organization of the United Nations. With vulnerable groups on their own, companies such as FoodBlessed are indeed a blessing. Maya Terro, the founder of the association, collects food waste destined for the trash to distribute it to the needy.

Its mission to fight hunger and food waste in Lebanon began in 2012 and its impact has been considerable. Over the past nine years, FoodBlessed has served some three million meals, in addition to rescuing over three million tonnes of surplus food.

Where does this deeply rooted passion for helping others come from? We talk to Terro about his mission to fight food waste, his studies abroad in Europe and what his Chevening experience has taught him:

Tell us about your interest in social impact. Is this something that has always fascinated you?

I’m 35 now, but I’ve been volunteering since I was only 14. I never imagined that one day I would be running my own organization. Through volunteering, I’ve learned that the secret to personal growth comes from the change you want to see.

Even as a child, I always felt different and walked to the beat of my own drum doing things that were stereotypically considered wrong (like climbing trees, being expressive, being loud, etc.). As I grew older, being different seemed more of a burden than a blessing.

“I’m 35 now, but I’ve been volunteering since I was only 14 and never imagined that one day I would be running my own organization,” she says. Source: Maya Terro

To this day, whenever anyone asks me who inspired me to be shameless myself, it would be Mulan – the Disney Princess. She is my heroine because she challenged cultural and gender stereotypes, contributed to her country, was courageous and made a whole generation of girls do the same.

Ultimately, we should be striving to be better humans rather than better men or better women. Over the years, I have seen how inspiring volunteering with FoodBlessed has been.

I still remember the day one of the male volunteers refused to be in a photo because he was wearing a kitchen apron. I let him know that if he felt his place was not in the kitchen he could leave because no one gets special treatment and we are all equal.

After a moment of complete silence, he apologized and saw the meaning of what I was saying. It was a good day for the never-ending battle of the sexes.

What about your study abroad experience? Tell us about Italy, the Netherlands and the UK. What prompted you to apply for the Chevening scholarship?

Studying abroad has changed my life for the better and has easily been one of the best decisions I’ve made. I’ve always wanted to see the world since I was young and never thought it would happen because I didn’t have the financial means to do it.

If you work hard the impossible becomes accessible and in my case my hard work over the years has paid off. It wasn’t so much about the destination as it was about the trip I experienced in each country that stood out.

However, Rome will always have a special place in my heart since Italy was my first time abroad on a plane by myself. Being abroad has made me see everything and everyone differently in my life.

food waste

“To this day, whenever anyone asks me who inspired me to be shameless myself, it would be Mulan – the Disney Princess,” she says. Source: Maya Terro

In my free time I flew in my free time to another part of Europe which was something on my to-do list. London and the Netherlands were not very different. Because international student fees are expensive, wanting to continue my studies in Europe forced me to apply for financial aid and scholarships.

This meant that I was able to pursue three masters in five years. Naturally, when I heard about the Chevening scholarship, I applied. For this one I had to apply twice. I cherish the memories that I will keep until the end of time.

How did the application process go?

Lots of work, but nothing really wrong. Like many other applications, it’s several hours in front of the computer and getting noticed.

What did the Chevening scholarship cover and how did it help?

It covered the basics – my accommodation, food and travel. Anything I could save I spent on my trips.

What was the hardest and easiest part of the app? How did you overcome the challenges?

It’s difficult. The easiest way was to launch the application. The hardest part was actually getting to the last part and submitting it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve edited and re-edited my entries.

It took a lot of patience, hard work and love to overcome these obstacles. My desire for this scholarship to continue my education in UK came from a place of love.

The first time I applied for Chevening, I didn’t participate because I filled out an entry incorrectly. So, with patience for the second time, I gave my all and prepared for rejection. However, it was good news because I won the scholarship.

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“At the end of the day, we should be striving to be better humans rather than better men or better women. Over the years, I’ve seen how empowering volunteering with FoodBlessed has been, ”she says. Source: Maya Terro

Can you share with us your Chevening experience at SOAS University of London?

I chose this university to study migration, mobility and development because the course is truly one of a kind. It is also the world’s leading institution for the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

With a truly global perspective, SOAS is the best place to learn about current thinking in our world. Plus, the students there are probably some of the most active people I’ve met, as they’re very motivated to campaign on issues that matter to them.

One of the main things I learned during my time there was to be proud of my heritage and background. It is one of the most diverse universities in the UK.

Tell us about the fight against food waste with your initiative, FoodBlessed. Are you planning to scale your business globally?

I started this because I wanted to tackle food insecurity and food waste by empowering members of my community to give back year round rather than seasonally. Sharing food has always been a part of human history.

Sometimes I had to remind myself that what I had built years ago has grown from an idea to an organization and ultimately to a community. Now we share a passion for food and my greatest aversion to food insecurity and food waste.

Tell us about your experience helping those affected by the Beirut explosion last year.

Four months after the Beirut explosion, our FoodBlessed volunteers were able to achieve exceptional achievements. The Beirut Emergency Relief Plan was launched on August 5, and my organization has worked to help sweep streets, clean homes, provide food and financial assistance to affected low-income victims.

With the help of generous donors and exceptional volunteers, we cooked and packed daily meals as well as weekly food packages. This included 100,000 ready meals and 3,258 boxes of food for people in need across Lebanon.

In addition, we were able to provide financial assistance to the victims of the explosion so that they could renovate and repair their homes. We have also supplied basic necessities for babies and women as well as medicines and several other necessities.

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“I started this because I wanted to tackle food insecurity and food waste by allowing members of my community to give back year-round rather than seasonally,” she says. Source: Maya Terro

FoodBlessed has grown a lot since its inception, especially over the past three years. This is due to the deterioration of the country’s economic and social situation since November 2019.

I don’t intend to grow globally just because I think our role is important in Lebanon and needs us more than ever. The fight against food insecurity and food waste in Lebanon has always been a priority and the heart of our mission, vision and values.

What would you advise future candidates for the Chevening scholarship?

Be yourself without apologizing all the time. Remember to never give up hope and be true to yourself. When you apply, don’t fabricate stuff just to impress the jury, because you might cheat on them then, but you will be caught off guard in your interview – nothing beats honesty.

Never stop learning because there is a lot of power in knowledge. If you don’t get the scholarship the first time around, keep trying! Take comfort in the fact that you’ve at least made an effort and like I always say, trying is half the battle.

Pay attention to your mental health. I have struggled with severe anxiety and depression for five years now and even now I have not fully recovered. Remember, it’s okay to disagree because your sanity is a work in progress.

Find your safety net which could be an object, a person, a place or even your religious beliefs. Applying for the Chevening scholarship can be stressful, but nothing worth getting is ever easy. Finally, express yourself: sharing is benevolent and leaves less room for judgment.

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