Max Rossi/Reuters/File
A man shops for food in a Conad grocery shop in Rome, Italy. The Italian government in 2016 passed a law to curb food waste by making it easier for supermarkets to donate food to charity and encouraging diners to use 'family bags' to take food home after eating out.

How wasted supermarket food is feeding the hungry in Milan

Sustainable soup kitchen Refettorio Ambrosiano feeds the hungriest on the excess from the city’s supermarkets.

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.”

This story originally appeared on Food Tank.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to How wasted supermarket food is feeding the hungry in Milan
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today