A relief effort accelerates and expands: The story behind 2.3 million saved meals

A third of the world’s food is wasted annually, but saving and repurposing just half of that waste would feed nearly all undernourished people globally. This lopsided equation—and the painful reality it represents for many—became the impetus for action for a group of McKinsey colleagues in the Middle East Office in April 2020.

At the time, the devastating effects of COVID-19 were unfolding fast around the world, disrupting lives in countless ways. With Ramadan just weeks away, our colleagues knew that many families in the region would have difficulty securing food for the month. “It was a really scary time, where a lot of people were facing challenges,” says Reem Mouazzen Alyawer, a senior associate in McKinsey’s Middle East Office. “We knew we had to help however we could.”

Reem and our colleagues partnered with the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and sought to deliver 10 million meals throughout the month of Ramadan. The campaign well exceeded its goal, delivering 15.3 million meals across the United Arab Emirates in 2020. “It was amazing and so inspiring to see how all the community members just came together,” says Reem. “And that was just the start of this incredible journey.”

A year later, the effort scaled to deliver more than 216 million meals—more than double their goal—to more than 30 countries, helping vulnerable communities in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. It became—and remains the biggest food donation drive in the region.

“I feel blessed and very grateful that I had the chance to be a part of this team because it was the kind of work that led to impact that was very real for so many people,” says Ali Baqueri, a senior associate.

This spring, the team continued their efforts for a third year, alongside Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the UAE Food Bank to deliver a further one million meals, either saved or repurposed.

Our colleagues built on the sustainability effort, partnering with supermarkets, retail chains, hotels, and restaurants to repurpose food items that were near expiration and would otherwise be thrown out. They also worked with hotels and restaurants with excess food, especially during Ramadan. Elsewhere, hotel and restaurant kitchen leftovers were recycled into compost that was then donated to farms across the UAE.

“I was inspired to see that we could distribute more than 50,000 meals each day from food that would otherwise have gone to waste,” says Martijn Leenhouts, a senior implementation expert. “Once we saw that impact, we knew we wanted to make this a standing effort.”

To ensure an efficient and effective system, the team developed a digital tool that manages the ecosystem of food suppliers and partners, including a dashboard for tracking the number of meals packaged and delivered, and the number of vulnerable individuals and families who received the meals.

Ultimately, these efforts led to a total 2.3 million meals saved and donated in 2022, again doubling the outcome of our original goal. 

One million saved meals

One million saved meals

One-third of the world’s food is wasted annually. By saving and repurposing just half of this waste, almost all the undernourished people in the world could be fed.

“I’m grateful to be a part of this project and be reminded daily that what you take for granted can make a huge difference for someone else,” says junior associate Batool Aljufairi. “Food waste is an ongoing problem, and my hope is for our communities to continue to repurpose excess food beyond the month of Ramadan.”

That effort is already underway. McKinsey is now working with the UAE Food Bank to develop its strategy and design clear initiatives to take its mandate to the next level. And hopefully, bring a little more balance to that lopsided equation.

Never miss a story

Stay updated about McKinsey news as it happens