Zahara (whose first name is pronounced “choot”) is one of the program directors of Feed the Barrel, Philadelphia’s first residential cooking oil recycling program. Members of the Indonesian Diaspora Network of Greater Philadelphia, a local chapter of the national organization, created the pilot in early 2013 with the help of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Asian Pacific American Council, which serves communities that are typically under-represented. In Indonesia, families have more space—big backyards and gardens—and so dumping used cooking oil outside was never an issue. But in Philadelphia, where open space is limited, many Indonesians resort to throwing away their oil after cooking with it; or worse, pouring it down the drain, where it would block their pipes as well as city-owned water mains, making for some very expensive plumbing fixes.
“We as a community … never dealt with this problem in our country before,” Zahara says. She moved from Aceh, Indonesia, in 2000 and has lived in the U.S. since then. “We [Indonesians] use a lot of cooking oil, we fry everything, so that’s why … after we use it, we just pour it down the sink; that’s how we dealt with it before. [But] now we know how to do it better.”
At a meeting in early 2013, members of the Indonesian Diaspora Network of Greater Philadelphia decided that Zahara, who has been an activist and a speaker on environmental and human rights issues for 14 years, was the kind of champion that Feed the Barrel needs. Zahara and Merlin Lamson, project manager, were chosen after the community leaders saw “the scope of the project, and realize we need back-up,” says Hani White, chairwoman for the Indonesian Diaspora Network of Greater Philadelphia.