Bridging The Food Waste And Food Insecurity Gap: How Singaporeans Are Doing Their Part
Going hungry in Singapore can be an unfathomable concept to many, especially with the myriad affordable food options that could go as low as $2.50 for a plate of chicken rice. Last year, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Singapore as the most food-secure country in the world on its Global Food Security Index.
Yet, a 2020 United Nations report on The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World revealed that 4.7 per cent of Singapore’s population face moderate to severe food insecurity and lack reliable access to affordable nutrition. On the other end of the spectrum, the amount of food waste generated in Singapore has increased by about 20 per cent in the past 10 years and is expected to climb with our growing population and economic activity, according to the National Environment Agency (NEA). Out of the 744,000 tonnes of food waste generated in 2019, only 18 per cent was recycled.
“While awareness has increased for both food waste and food insecurity, the reality is that the gap has widened with the increased food insecurity situation,” says Nichol Ng, co-founder of The Food Bank Singapore. “More people have become food insecure as a result of losing their livelihoods during the pandemic. So even with greater awareness, the rate of food donations doesn’t necessarily match the rate of growing need. Based on our pre-Covid-19 food insecurity report, which was commissioned to the Lien Centre for Social Innovation in early 2019, one in 10 people is already experiencing food insecurity. That number has currently climbed to one in nine, or worse.”
Other food groups here are also reporting a similar situation. Food from the Heart (FFTH) CEO Sim Bee Hia shares that the charity has been receiving more direct requests for food aid. In February, it was supplying 6,500 food packs a month. By July, the number had risen to nearly 8,600. Free Food for All (FFFA) founder Nizar Mohamed Shariff says that he received over 800 enquiries when he first posted the assistance request form on the charity’s Facebook page. Pre-pandemic, he would see 100 to 120 new applicants a month. Through the support of the Temasek Foundation (the philanthropic arm of Singapore investment firm Temasek Holdings) and Food is Love Foundation (a charitable foundation set up by real estate developer Kishin RK’s food firm TiffinLabs), the charity distributed over 120,000 cooked and ready-to-eat meals to the needy, and another 1,000 meals to migrant workers with funds donated by venture capitalist Ozi Amanat and his wife Asema Ahmed.
BRIDGING THE FOOD GAP
While awareness campaigns have gone some way in raising public awareness of suitable food donation and the need to consume only what is needed, challenges still remain in the efficient coordination and distribution of resources. There are also about 125 food support groups providing assistance, from ration packs and cooked food to cash vouchers.
“We are definitely seeing more donations in kind, and people are calling to find out what we need before donating,” says Sim. “For each item, we check, sort and key in the details such as pricing and source into the computer system. It’s a lot of hard work to sort out what should go where.” For example, diabetic beneficiaries cannot take sugar-loaded products, while items with a shorter shelf life are channelled to nursing homes or community kitchens that do bulk cooking.
Preston Wong, the co-founder and CEO of Treatsure, feels that more can be done to coordinate efforts between organisations and to deploy technology to efficiently streamline the process from tracking or analysing the food to the actual donation and redistribution to beneficiaries. His Treatsure app links consumers to hotels on a takeaway buffet-in-a-box model to tackle surplus food from buffet lines, and to grocery suppliers for the purchase of excess, expiring or blemished items to reduce wastage upstream. While the former has been suspended for now, surplus grocery orders have increased three-fold during Singapore’s two-month circuit breaker period. This has brought on logistical and resource challenges, yet the app has proven useful in enabling users to buy groceries for needy families on their own accord and rallying support to get snacks for about 5,000 foreign workers through an initiative with Migrant Workers’ Centre.
Meanwhile, at FFFA, an employee manually keys in the details on which households get priority in food aid. “We also ask if they prefer fresh food or ready-to-eat meals. Some need breakfast items for the kids before they go to school so we put in energy bars,” Nizar explains. He has been trying to install a more efficient software system that includes stocktaking and delivery routing, but the quotations of $80,000 to $100,000 have been daunting.
MAKING A MATCH
To tackle the twin issues of food waste and food insecurity, the government set up a new multi-agency workgroup last year involving representatives from food groups, plus officials from the Ministry of Social and Family Development, Health Promotion Board and NEA. In May, NEA announced a $1.76 million Food Waste Fund to cover the cost of implementing food waste treatment solutions for organisations in Singapore.
Meanwhile, DBS Bank and The Food Bank are jointly developing a virtual food banking app, which is targeted to be ready by year-end. Donors will share the type and quantity of food they have on hand via the app, giving food support organisations real-time information on the availability of items. The app will also tap on Asia’s first unsold foods wholesaler TreeDots’ network of food producers, importers and F&B businesses to enhance the supply and predicability of food donations.
DBS group strategic marketing and communications head and DBS Foundation board member Karen Ngui says: “This would help facilitate more relevant food matching and support, and ensure beneficiaries receive the right quantum and types of food they need.”
DBS Foundation also introduced a new Zero Food Waste category to its grant programme this year. “In the midst of the pandemic, this has become an even more pressing issue,” says Ngui. “Some examples of these solutions include technology, applications, innovations, products that reduce food loss along the supply chain, as well as those that manage surplus food or upcycle food waste to value-added products.”
Bridging the gap in food waste and needs is more than just taking surplus from an inventory and placing it in the hands of someone who needs it. It takes a load off an exhausted essential worker’s mind knowing there is a ready meal for the family at the end of the day. Programmes such as FFTH’s pilot Community Shop, which opened in Mountbatten in February give the needy the dignity of choice. Each beneficiary can pick up to 12 items a month. “We notice that people have been taking what they need and not hoarding. Some even used their quota to get groceries for their neighbours,” says Sim.
Businesses pummelled by the pandemic get a chance to survive and marginalised groups earn a livelihood and bond with the community. Nizar directs more self-sufficient beneficiaries to two-dollar meals cooked by housewives in low-income households in the same neighbourhood while supporting the latter with lower-priced ingredients.
The Social Kitchen, which was launched last month by entrepreneurs Alvin Yapp and Ang Kian Peng, is Singapore’s first social enterprise cloud kitchen to provide jobs for those from low-income families, single mothers, and persons with disabilities and their caregivers and family members, while saving local F&B businesses grappling with manpower and rental costs. Together with YMCA and Shine Children and Youth Services, it served nearly 135,000 meals to needy children and their families during the circuit breaker period and is pledging at least 15,000 more meals in the months ahead.
Similarly, campaigns such as DBS Bank’s Feed the City – DBS Edition for The Food Bank and non-profit organisation Blossom World Society’s Project Belanja with the Restaurant Association of Singapore, are not just about feeding the low-income, elderly and migrant workers, but also giving the hard-hit F&B sector a much-needed boost to stay in business.
Ensuring quality donations and its efficient distribution requires a massive relook into the workings of the entire ecosystem, but the extra mile is rewarding. Beyond simply reducing food wastage, beneficiaries receive practical and nutritious food aid while struggling sectors of society and the economy are given a leg up. The Food Bank’s Ng says: “The greatest joy is in seeing the smiles of those receiving and enjoying what we provided. Food is not just about filling tummies but nourishing souls—and this is when it gets personal.”