While feeding the hungry on unwanted food is not a new theory, 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted every year while 795 million people go hungry. The concept is simple—hunger can be easily alleviated if only we adjust the way we think about garbage.
The Refettorio Ambrosiano is putting this theory to the test. Housed in a refurbished 1930s theater in the Greco neighborhood of northern Milan, this sustainable soup kitchen feeds the hungriest on the excess of the city’s supermarkets.
Opened in April 2015 to recover wasted food from the World Expo’s restaurants and sponsors, the Refettorio is a collaboration between Massimo Bottura, chef of number-one restaurant Osteria Francescana; Davide Rampello, director of Pavilion Zero at the Expo; and Caritas, the charitable arm of the Vatican. Sixty world-renowned chefs passed through the kitchen to offer their craft to the Refettorio’s guests.
The soup kitchen recovered 14 tons of fresh food during Expo’s five-month run and 11 tons in the seven months after. But its true feat might be its longevity. The kitchen continues to serve hot meals from salvaged food, proving itself as a model for similar projects, such as the Refettorio Gastromotiva, a soup kitchen that used food waste from the Rio Olympics this year.
Today, there are no celebrity chefs or film crews, just volunteers and the people to which they serve fresh, delicious plates of pasta, minestrone, or whatever’s brought in from the morning pickup of excess food.
The kitchen is now supplied by several local supermarkets, including Coop and Esselunga. A day’s haul from these supermarkets could be anything—bags of potatoes, a bunch of apples, frozen zucchini, the occasional meat or fish. The chef, one of the few people involved in the soup kitchen who is not a volunteer, receives the food around eight in the morning and begins concocting the evening’s meal from whatever’s placed in front of her.
The dining room of the Refettorio feels like a museum of contemporary art. Nearly everything was donated in the building from the works of art to the kitchen appliances and the 12 unique wooden tables. On two sides of these tables sit around 95 guests for dinner every night. There are no heads of the table to evoke a sense of equality among guests.
“People come from all backgrounds,” said Carlo Casabianca, a volunteer at the Refettorio. “So, every evening around these tables, around 60, 70 percent of the guests from all possible ethnicities gather. Moreover, it’s a beautiful thing that after the first moments of diffidence, they create a sense of togetherness. The protect each other. They help each other.”
More than half the guests are foreigners, while others are in recovery programs that work with individuals who have gone through difficult life changes such as job loss.
While the volunteers and employees of the Refettorio carry on the humble mission in Greco, Bottura, the mastermind behind the project, is bringing the Refettorio and its mission abroad. He completed the Refettorio project in Rio during the Olympics and is now planning to open others in the Bronx, New York, and Torino, Italy, through his nonprofit, Food for Soul.
“This has never been a charity event,” said Bottura in a video interview. “This was our cultural response to the question of, the reflection on what does it mean to feed the planet, fight food waste. How do you fight it? Through culture.”