Appetite for Change: One Young Food Activist’s Fight for Responsible Consumption in Lebanon

Maya Terro’s hunger for change led her to found FoodBlessed, an organization uniting communities across Lebanon to combat food waste and catalyze a shift in the country's culture of consumption.
Maya Terro young activist, Fights Hunger in Lebanon.
Photo credit: FoodBlessed

Maya Terro represents a new generation of passionate young activists who are fearlessly tackling various social, economic, and political problems facing Lebanon and its public institutions.

In 2012, Terro founded FoodBlessed, a community-based, volunteer-driven hunger-relief and food-rescue program that seeks to provide “an effective and efficient solution to hunger, while addressing the serious and growing problem of food waste in Lebanon,” according to the organization’s website.

Maya Terro Fights Hunger in Lebanon
Photo credit: FoodBlessed

The passionate 32-year-old’s initiative could not have come at a better time. According to a report conducted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Lebanon in 2016, a third of Lebanon’s population have incomes under the World Bank poverty line, many earning less than $4 a day.

In addition to the 1.5 million Lebanese citizens classified as “poor,” there are another 300,000 that are classified as “extremely poor.” It is estimated that this demographic lives on less than $2.50 a day “and [are] unable to meet their basic food needs.”  

Another report published by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA) in 2016 stated that 49% of the Lebanese population was worried about being able to access enough food. Another 31% of people surveyed said that they were unable to eat healthy and nutritious food over the course of a year.

While the statistics coming out of Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, are not encouraging, the statistics from other Lebanese regions are not much better. Although the Beka’a and Akkar governorates in Lebanon have the highest percentage of poverty in the country, they receive less attention and aid in comparison to Beirut. It is also estimated that one quarter of Lebanon’s population are refugees, making it the country with the world’s highest per capita refugee presence.

Approximately 1.5 million of these refugees are Syrian and their situation is far worse than many of Lebanon’s poor. The percentage of Syrian families estimated to suffer from food insecurity is 93%, according to the UNESCWA. In order to cope with this unfortunate reality, many Syrian refugees take their children out of school and send them to workif there is even work to be found.

Maya Terro Fights Hunger in Lebanon
Photo Credit: FoodBlessed

In addition to being in the heart of a region that is plagued by conflict and political instability, Lebanon also suffers from high unemployment rates. The youth unemployment rate in the country currently rests at 20.6%, with rates among women and Syrian refugees being even higher. These issues, and many more, have put unwanted strain on Lebanon’s already overstretched public services and infrastructure.

In spite of these challenges, Terro has taken it upon herself to turn her passion for food into a humanitarian mission that “nourishes” individuals, communities, and public institutions to promote positive change in her country. The young “food activist” named her organization FoodBlessed, because she felt that many religious texts highlight the importance of food and the need for people to appreciate its physical and spiritual value.

Terro coined the word “foodblessed” because she believes that no matter what kind of food is being given, who it is being given to, and who is receiving it that it is always a blessing because it nourishes people’s bodies and relationships.

“At FoodBlessed, we use the power of food and volunteerism to enable individuals to transform their sincere care into substantial action . . . I mean, think about it, food is so quintessential to who we are and to the relationships we have with [each other],” Terro told Inside Arabia. “FoodBlessed brings together people around one table who would have otherwise never met over a communal meal.”

FoodBlessed focuses on supporting Lebanon in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The NGO specifically focuses on SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) and SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production). It also indirectly contributes to SDG 1 (No Poverty), SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being), and SDG 13 (Climate Action). Terro believes that her NGO provides the multifaceted approach that Lebanon needs to tackle many social issues it faces.

FoodBlessed distributes free meals and hosts food assistance programs, food rescue programs, food drives, fund drives, and outings. In addition to that, the NGO also works on spreading awareness in Lebanese society by educating people about responsible food production and consumption and what they can do to curb the amount of food they waste.

Maya Terro young activist, Fights Hunger in Lebanon.
Photo Credit: FoodBlessed

Terro believes that it is vital for Lebanese citizens and residents to understand the difference between food loss and food waste in order to catalyze a positive shift in the culture of consumption in her country.

However, food security is not the only objective Terro is striving to achieve through her organization. She is also working on promoting social cohesion through food by bringing together different people and stakeholders in Lebanese society.

Over the years, Terro has worked with thousands of volunteers, whom she calls “Hunger Heroes” because she believes that they are everyday heroes who are saving food (and people) in Lebanon.

Terro works with countless businesses and civil society organizations, or “Blessed Partners,” as she calls them, to promote the concepts of individual social responsibility and corporate social responsibility.

“These partnerships play a quintessential role in [helping us] reach our long-term goal of uniting communities through the power of food, civic engagement and social responsibility,” she explained.

The NGO works with their Blessed Partners to recover and collect surplus food and items that are close to their expiration dates from events, fast-moving consumer goods on the verge of expiration, and retailers’ excess stock. The food, which would otherwise go to waste, is then packaged and distributed as free, hearty meals, also known as food assistance packages, to underprivileged communities and local charities in Beirut.

The young food activist, who is half Lebanese and half Ukrainian, is the oldest of five children. Although born in Ukraine, Terro considers herself 100% Lebanese, since she has spent most of her life in the country. Terro began volunteering at the age of 14, and she claims that she has always been an activist at heart. “I have been advocating for change every since I was an infant . . . when I think about it now, I think I started rebelling against the status quo even before I could spell the word ‘rebel.’”

In addition to having endless passion and vast practical experience in the realm of food activism, Terro also has several degrees. Not only does Terro hold a bachelor’s degree in biology and a Master of Public Health from the American University of Beirut, she also has a master’s degree in developmental economics and international cooperation from the University of Rome II. Recently, the young Lebanese food activist earned another master’s degree in migration, mobility, and development from the SOAS University of London as a Chevening Scholar.

Over the years, Terro and her work with FoodBlessed have been widely recognized in the region. She has received numerous accolades and awards including: the Al Ahli Holding Group’s CSR in Action award in 2012, King Abdullah II’s Award for Youth Innovation & Achievement award in 2014, Lebanon American University’s Spirit of Service Award in 2015, MBC Al Amal’s Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2016, and the Chevening scholarship in 2016. In 2018, Terro ran as an independent candidate for the Lebanese parliamentary elections in the Chouf-Aley district in the Mount Lebanon governorate.

Since its establishment in 2012, more than 1,500 volunteers have distributed over 300,000 free meals through FoodBlessed. Furthermore, the NGO has been able to rescue over 60,000 tons of food from going to waste, thanks to the help of its Blessed Partners. However, for Terro, FoodBlessed’s biggest achievement is the values that the NGO has been able to instill in the hearts and minds of the people it serves and the people who serve it.

“What we offer at FoodBlessed is not a only a meal per se, but everything else that revolves around it!” said Terro. “[Our organization] gives people in Lebanon a sense of empowerment and a chance to care, inspire each other, and become more active citizens in their respective communities. Through a meal, cooked, served or shared, my volunteers and I are creating and [promoting] change on a daily basis, one meal at a time.”

Although Terro’s organization has accomplished a great deal in its six years of operation, it has also encountered various obstacles. There are three main challenges that FoodBlessed faces. First, like many NGOs, FoodBlessed struggles to secure the finances it needs to operate, expand, and pay Terro a salary. Second, FoodBlessed has difficulty recruiting Blessed Partners and getting them to donate their surplus, as they worry about the potential legal ramifications of doing so. Lastly, the biggest challenge that FoodBlessed faces is in establishing the cultural shift needed to promote the food security and sustainable consumption habits needed in Lebanese society.

Despite the challenges, Terro is determined to continue using food as a medium to promote volunteerism and solidarity in Lebanon. “FoodBlessed and I are looking forward to being more and doing more.” She aspires to serve more meals and deliver more food assistance packages to those in need in her country, while also rescuing more food from going to waste. And she believes that anyone can be a leader and a changemaker like her.

“You don’t need special powers to [change] the world, [you only need] strong willpower, determination and passion,” she says.

Maya Terro young activist, Fights Hunger in Lebanon.
Photo credit: FoodBlessed

However, the young activist also admitted that it can be to be difficult to be an agent of change at times—especially in Arab societies.

“Unfortunately, the majority of people,” she says, including sometimes the people closest to you, “will judge you and often mistaken your [headstrong] determination for ego or for aggressiveness [because it’s] hard for them to understand why you’re doing what you are doing.”

Nevertheless, Terro had three pieces of advice for young people worldwide who aspire to become changemakers: “Never lose hope. Be true. You only get one life, so spend it doing what you love.”

While the young Lebanese food activist did not follow her father’s dream of becoming a doctor, she believes that the work she is doing is just as valuable. Terro also believes that every young person should promote change in his or her community by trying to share and embody the values that he or she feels the most passionate about.

“Although I’m not a doctor, I know that I’m still saving lives on a daily basis and making this world a better place one meal at a time … I lead by example.”

“Although I’m not a doctor, I know that I’m still saving lives on a daily basis and making this world a better place one meal at a time … I lead by example,” she says.

At the end of the day, while many leaders can create change, only great leaders promote change while staying true to the essence of who they are. In other words, they passionately and stubbornly hold steadfast to their ideals, so they can positively change the world around them.

Terro ended by sharing her favorite quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”