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  • Matthew Palaczky

Les Restos du Cœur – The French institution fighting food waste and hunger

Thanks to throwaway culture and consumer trends and practises, it is evident that food waste is more of an issue in industrialised countries. Many initiatives have been set up in these countries to deal with the issue, for example Starbucks has recently launched a campaign to redistribute 100% of its leftover food. However, we rarely consider those that go hungry in these developed countries. In France, the national statistics organisation INSEE estimates that 8.5 million people are currently living in poverty. Fortunately the country has an organisation which is tackling the problem.

Having recently celebrated its 30th birthday last year, Les Restos du Cœur is a French non-profit organisation which has been successfully fighting against hunger and poverty in France. Literally translated as Restaurants of the Heart in English, the organisation operates across the country, providing meals and generally giving support and aid to those in need.

The organisation was founded in 1985 by the French comedian Coluche, who went on the radio station Europe 1 to launch the idea with the now-famous words:

“J’ai une petite idée comme ça (…) un resto qui aurait comme ambition, au départ, de distribuer deux ou trois mille couverts par jour”

(I have a little idea, something like this (…) a restaurant which will aim, at the start, to distribute 2000-3000 meals per day.)

During the first winter campaign of 1985-6, Coluche ended up distributing over 8.5 million meals with the help of over 5000 volunteers. The original target was well beaten and Les Restos du Cœur were a success.

Sadly, just a few months later, in the summer after that original winter campaign, Coluche passed away. Les Restos du Cœur became his legacy and their mission to care for those in need became all the more important. A second much larger winter campaign was organised and this time the organisation was departmentalised, allowing meals to be distributed all over the country. In addition to this, in 1987 the EU passed the PEAD (Programme Européen d’Aide aux plus Démunis/European Most Deprived Persons Help Programme), which (on Coluche’s request) has been helping organisations to redistribute leftover food to those in extreme poverty across Europe. His legacy can also be seen in the Loi Coluche, passed by the French government in 1988, which introduced tax credits on money that is donated to charity organisations.

Over the next few decades, Coluche’s Restos du Cœur grew bigger and bigger. In the late 80’s the organisation continued to provide meals outside of the winter months and started its first summer campaigns, making sure those who needed food could get it all year round. In 1989 the first charity concert in support of the organisation, performed by “Les Enfoirés” (a collection of famous French singers, musicians and celebrities), took place and since then there have been concerts nearly every year. “Les Enfoirés” also release a charity record annually which is very popular, having reached the number 1 spot in the French charts since the year 2000. A decade later, in 2002, Les Restos du Cœur set up 10 national antennes, which have helped the organisation to increase the amount of aid it can give and also to be able to give permanent support all year round.

Its size and importance was demonstrated in the late noughties, when it was able to provoke debate in the French government and impact decisions. For example in 2007, the French government responded to its demands and increased the budget spent on aiding the redistribution of usable leftover food. Even during the credit crisis of 2008-11, a time during which more and more people found themselves in need of the Restos services (a cumulative increase of 25%), the organisation continued to maintain its campaigns and provide support.

The principal goal of Les Restos du Cœur has always been more than just providing free meals. It has also been about helping those in need in every way possible, preventing the poor from falling into homelessness and getting those who are down and out back onto their feet.

One of Coluche’s main aims was to help the poor and the homeless with their social reinsertion. Many campaigns have been launched by the organisation with the intention of helping those who have found themselves in difficult situations find their way back into society. Les Camions du Cœur, Les Relais du Cœur, Les Toits du Cœur, Les Jardins du Cœur and many more like these were all set up to help people reintegrate into society and acquire the skills necessary to find employment. With these schemes, the organisation is aiming to solve the issue in the long term, by helping people get into the position where they are able to provide for themselves and so no longer need the help of Les Restos de Cœur.

The organisation is also very heavily involved in the fight against homelessness in France. In the mid-nineties it launched an emergency shelter located on a houseboat for the homeless in Paris, La Péniche du Cœur, which is still active. It also used its government influence to rescue the Loi Solidarité et Renouvellement Urbain (Urban Solidarity and Regeneration Law), which obliges local authorities to make sure that 20% of all the housing constructed in their municipality be social housing.

2015 marked the 30th anniversary of Coluche’s “petite idée” - Les Restos du Cœur. The year was dedicated to “reaffirming the values” of the organisation, by launching debates on the issue of food waste and with experiments in finding ways to make perishable fruit and vegetables last longer so that they can be transported to those in need. 128.5 million meals were distributed to those in need that year, meaning that in total, Les Restos du Cœur have provided just over a billion meals since its conception.

But providing food aid is no longer its principal objective, it acknowledges that this is just a temporary solution to a much bigger problem. The main aim is to give those in need help and backing on the path towards autonomy. Social reinsertion is considered to be the long-term solution and so this is what the organisation is principally focusing on, by promoting its workshops which are giving those on the fringes of society the skills needed to improve themselves and find work.

This fundamentally utopian project has been continuously providing support to those in need for over 30 years now and shows no sign of slowing down. A comedian’s simple idea to help feed those in need has become an established French institution with the power to truly change the lives of those living in poverty and on the outside of society.

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