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Have near-expiry food? Donate it

Here is an often underreported statistic: an estimated 420,000 people in Singapore live on a family income of under $1,500 a month - or about $50 a day spread across the four members of an average-sized household here.

In a bid to stretch their dollar, many give up regular hot meals or turn to cheap and non-nutritious food, according to a white paper released in April by the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation at the National University of Singapore.

And yet in the past year, 785,500 tonnes of food waste were generated in Singapore - of which only a dismal 13 per cent was recycled.

To break that down, it would mean each person is wasting two bowls of rice a day and about 140kg of food a year - all while one in 10 people in Singapore go to bed hungry.

Non-profit Food from the Heart is hoping to shed light on shocking statistics like this for World Food Day, which is celebrated today globally.

The charity, which distributes free food to the needy, is conducting its annual Clean Plate campaign. Now in its fourth year, the two-month campaign, held in selected schools, aims to get the younger generation to curb food wastage.

For example, students are encouraged through talks and exhibitions to return clean plates at meal times and develop a culture of mindful eating.

The campaign started in 2013 with only five schools. The number has grown to 35 this year.

The event has also helped to raise funds for the charity through a partnership with the FairPrice Foundation, which came on board last year and pledged $10 for every clean plate returned during recess in participating schools.

The efforts raised $110,000 last year. The aim this year is to raise $150,000 by the time the campaign ends on Friday.

For Food from the Heart chairman Ronald Stride, the campaign is key as it encourages starting good habits early.

The 76-year-old says: "Affluence undoubtedly leads to an increase in food wastage, but it can be combated through education and awareness-building - especially among the younger generation. The Clean Plate campaign was therefore a natural extension for us to encourage students to order only what they can finish, so they don't waste food."

For organisations on the ground though, awareness-building is just one of the many issues they have to tackle when trying to curb food wastage and increase food redistribution efforts here.

For one thing, donating food offers no tax benefits to donors, which results in many Singaporeans choosing to shy away from recycling uneaten packaged foods or offering donations in kind to food banks.

Also, because Singapore does not have import taxes for food, organisations running food banks here say that importers tend to buy more than they need - which indirectly leads to more food wastage. They are also not penalised for disposing unsold stock.

Ms Nichol Ng, co-founder of Food Bank Singapore, points to misconceptions many food retailers and manufacturers have as the reason consumable food is being thrown away indiscriminately.

Some companies, for example, want to protect their image and see donating unsold food as a dilution of their brand. Others are concerned about hygiene issues that arise when donating products close to their expiry dates.

Such issues, says the 38-year-old, highlight a lack of understanding of how food banks work. Many like hers, a charity food bank that she founded with her brother in 2012, do quality checks on food before they are redistributed.

"It's unfortunate that some companies equate donating unsold products as bad business - it's a mindset that needs to change. We would like retailers and suppliers to treat us like a SembCorp for food," she says, referring to the waste and recycling management service. "That way, we can see what can be recycled and distributed, instead of everything getting thrown away."

Food Bank Singapore helps to redistribute 60 tonnes of food a month from its warehouse at Tanjong Pagar Distripark.

For Food from the Heart, the collection and redistribution of unsold bread from 115 bakeries and hotels are done daily using its network of more than 1,700 volunteers.

It also packs and redistributes community food packs and school goodie bags regularly using its own fleet of vehicles, benefiting more than 10,000 people a month.

Its 5,000 sq ft warehouse and chiller space, known as the Market Place, is stocked, thanks to ad-hoc donations and a partnership with supermarket chain FairPrice, which supplies it with near-expiry items and goods with damaged packaging from its 136 supermarkets islandwide.

However, Food from the Heart executive director Anson Quek hopes there will be more funding and regular donations from food manufacturers, retailers and distributors.

"We always face overwhelming demand," he says. "We are hoping more companies can donate fresh produce, meat, eggs and dairy products, which we can store in our chillers. These items are nutritious, but can be expensive for our beneficiaries to purchase."

Thankfully, though, some small businesses here are stepping up to do their part.

Ms Low Chiew Hong, owner of Yi Jia Bakery in Upper Thomson, has been donating between 30 and 100 unsold buns to Food from the Heart every day since 2014.

"It is about $80 worth of items daily, but it's not about the cost. We want to do our part to help society and reduce food that gets thrown away," the 53-year-old says.

Such acts go a long way towards feeding those who need it most.

Mr Alvin Wong, 51, operations manager of halfway house The Helping Hand, says: "Being able to pick out what we need every month from the Market Place is a great system - that way we, too, take only what we need, so nothing is wasted.

"More than that, though, food donations help us save between $800 and $1,000 every month, which goes a long way in helping us run the home for our residents."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 16, 2016, with the headline 'Have near-expiry food? Donate it'. Print Edition | Subscribe