Hotels and even royal palaces join scheme which ensures leftovers given to the needy from banquets and receptions arrives fresh.
UAE giving: No crumbs from a rich man's plate
ABU DHABI // Five years ago a man phoned the Cherish Blessings charity asking it to take food left over from a funeral and deliver it to the needy.
When a team arrived, they took one glance at the food and tried to find a way to let the senior Emirati official down gently.
"They found people had eaten with their hands from big plates placed in the middle of a dining table. They found yogurt and salad all over the rice and wet wipes on top," said Sultan Al Shehhi, head of the programme.
"So they turned to the man and asked, 'If you were poor, would you eat this?'
"He said no so they told him, 'These are not our servants, we work for them. We cannot give them this'."
After that, the man insisted that the team wait for the delivery of 150 fresh meals.
"This is a well-known man," Mr Al Shehhi said. "After that, at every majlis, he tells people about this to spread awareness, also encouraging people to use buffets where the food is untouched for hygiene purposes."
The charity, also known as Saving Grace or Hifth Al Ne'ma, has been running for nine years. It has raised its profile and requests to feed the needy at the end of feasts and lavish Ramadan iftars have flooded in.
"The culture is to make food in excess," Mr Al Shehhi said.
Some hosts have begun to look for hotels that cooperate with Cherish Blessings, but getting them on board was a struggle at first. Many were worried about hygiene.
"Families insisted that they were paying and wanted the excess food to go to the needy," Mr Al Shehhi said.
Hotels responded positively to the requests but "asked for Hifth Al Ne'ma to sign a form to take responsibility for the food".
Now most hotels in the emirate have signed up.
A spokesman from the Beach Rotana said the hotel joined the programme before it was well known, but now many people planning events ask whether it is affiliated with Cherish Blessings.
"It has been well received and we have guests who recommend their friends to hold their special occasions with us, citing this as one of the reasons that they should," the spokesman said.
The hotel encourages people to go for buffets rather than risk contamination with big platters.
The Rotana said that, before joining the programme, its excess food went to waste.
After the leftover food is collected, it is packed in individual boxes and placed in one of 18 refrigerated vans. Within a couple of hours the meals are distributed to hundreds of families and labourers.
The meal contents vary, Mr Al Shehhi said. It is common for a labourer to open his box and find lasagne from a hotel such as Emirates Palace, or a traditional Emirati delicacy from a royal palace.
"We sometimes get orders from high up to give out meals to certain labour camps," he said. "Sometimes we provide them food daily for up to a year."
Mr Al Shehhi said that 70,000 meals were handed out during Ramadan, as well as small "Break Fasts" passed out at Adnoc service stations at iftar times.
Cherish Blessings teams are available 24 hours a day, every day. A minimum of 50 meals must be available for pick up. Call free on 800 5011.