Recent spates of the hoarding of food supplies throughout the Covid-19 pandemic are an indicator of what food science experts term "low household food resilience".
Across the world, people rushed out to clear supermarket shelves of staples such as rice, pasta, eggs, tinned food and even toilet paper.
Such behaviour suggests low levels of food resilience.
Food security in a society looks at how well it ensures that food is available, where that food comes from (grown locally or imported), how strong the food distribution networks are and whether there is enough for the society.
The concept of food resilience, on the other hand, looks at how well communities and families adapt to food availability, and how they cope with food crises and uncertainties related to global food supply and demand.
At the community and family level, food resilience (FR) is defined as a household's ability to withstand stresses in disruption to food availability. These can be caused by multiple factors such as sudden reductions in food supplies, surges in food prices, or massive food contamination.
Household food resilience is an important factor when one considers that Singapore imports 90 per cent of its food supplies.
Indeed, the Government's food resilience mitigation measures have included stockpiling, diversification of food sources and providing funds to support and boost production supplies by local high-tech farmers at the national level.
But against the backdrop of the Covid-19 outbreak and panic buying that occurred, it is timely to promote a nationwide initiative to create greater awareness and preparedness in building FR within each household.
This will enhance efforts to achieve FR at the national and household levels - especially vital when an unplanned prolonged crisis cripples the global food supply chain.
Household FR should be part of Singapore's pillars of Total Defence and incorporated as part of "psychological defence", which refers to the ability to overcome a crisis through the collective will of Singaporeans to defend their way of life.
Food resilience can be increased if Singaporeans are more aware of how to make better use of food resources.
Government agencies can create official communications channels via various social media platforms such as websites, apps and publications. These can broadcast guidelines on sensible food rationing, pragmatic stocking levels, meal planning and food substitutes that can replace certain fresh produce when supplies are low.
Concurrently, the concept of household FR can also be introduced into the mainstream school curriculum.
As for helping people be prepared, the Civil Defence Emergency Handbook provides an estimated consumption guide on the types of food and quantities (mainly canned or dried convenience foodstuffs) per person for two weeks.
During the Covid-19 circuit breaker period, fresh foods are still available despite limited supplies. Thus, families should be able to continue having a balanced diet with appropriate portion sizes, and food from diverse food groups.
A highly food-resilient household will know it should forgo instant packaged food and opt for fresh, multicoloured foods that have higher vitamin and antioxidant content, and include healthier oils and herbs over processed condiments.
For family members with food allergies, this exercise becomes even more critical. In the long run, incorporating unhealthy food choices in one's diet will increase the risk of weight gain, resulting in obesity that leads to the incremental risk of diabetes and hypertension, as well as cardiovascular and other diseases.
Meal planning will also help to reduce food waste and help the family cope with rising food costs.
A family strong in household food resilience knows there is no need to build a stockpile at home. Stockpiles only drive up prices unnecessarily and make food less accessible to each household.
Instead, we need a more pragmatic approach, such as a baseline recommendation of stocking a food pantry that lasts about two to three weeks to ensure sufficiency and freshness.
Stay mindful that any unconsumed foods after the expiry date will go to waste.
Food wastage happens when people panic, overbuy and cannot utilise all the purchases before their shelf life expires.
When faced with a potential scarcity of resources, such wasteful behaviours should be kept to a minimum.
Households high in food resilience follow the 4Rs. They are:
Refuse: to hoard, to prevent having expired food. Refuse unhealthy food choices and don't overeat. Say no to Fomo (fear of missing out).
Reduce: wastage by portioning food - finish your portion before getting more food. And store food properly to keep the food fresh for longer.
Recycle: food scraps for compost, fruit peel for making teas and "enzyme cleaners", eggshells and coffee grounds for use as fertiliser, and vegetable peel or bones for making soup.
Reuse: rice water for gardening. Use BYO (bring your own) containers for takeaways. Keep leftovers to make a simple one-pot meal. Use pumpkin seeds in salads.
Increasing the awareness of and preparedness for household FR can improve the adaptive capacity of a society despite a pandemic and disruption to the global food supply chain.
Taking a balanced approach to food choices will enable families to cope with the uncertainties of the Covid-19 situation and prevent unnecessary food wastage, so that supplies remain sufficient for all.
Dr Johannah Soo is a consumer food science lecturer at the National Institute of Education at Nanyang Technological University. Jenny Sng is a certified food safety auditor at A-Europe Certification.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2020, with the headline 'Households need 'food resilience' awareness to avoid panic buying'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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