Charities in S'pore turn to technology to provide food aid more effectively

Free Food For All volunteers deliver organic vegetables to families in need, as part of the charity’s move to provide more nutrition.
Free Food For All volunteers deliver organic vegetables to families in need, as part of the charity’s move to provide more nutrition.PHOTO: FREE FOOD FOR ALL

Food charities in Singapore are now looking at ways to sustain aid efforts and help families get out of the food insecurity trap.

Their efforts include providing these families with healthy recipes and teaching them ways to grow microgreens.

The Government and the food aid organisations are also tapping technology to improve food distribution efficiency while ensuring appropriate help.

This is in addition to ongoing efforts to provide regular meals and rations for needy families, as well as emergency food aid amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

A food database and directory is being designed by the Charity Food Workgroup, a spokesman for the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) told The Straits Times.

The work group, convened by MSF in 2019, aims to improve coordination and efficiency in the charity food support sector and includes charities, government agencies and firms, as well as volunteers.

The food database will improve the matching of individuals who have food needs with food support organisations, by pulling together data of food support provided and identifying areas where food support efforts could be directed to or redirected from, said the MSF spokesman.

The directory will consolidate a list of food support organisations in Singapore on a common platform, allowing members of the public or social service agencies to search for food support based on location or dietary requirements, she added.

A prototype of the database and directory is slated for release by early next year.

About 4.5 per cent of Singapore's population face moderate to severe food insecurity, according to a 2021 global report on food security and nutrition by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

ST reported last November that four large food charities here - Food From The Heart, Free Food For All (FFFA), Willing Hearts and The Food Bank Singapore - support more than 250,000 people between them.

Food support coordinators in selected towns have been matching households with food they need. They encourage organisations to join the database, and to consider innovative ways to deliver food support that would provide choice and preserve the dignity of the recipients, said the MSF spokesman.

Autonomy and dignity were among concerns raised in a recent report by charity Beyond Social Services on food insecurity and food aid in public rental flat households. The report, based on in-depth interviews conducted with 54 households, found that many regularly reduce their food intake or cope by filling up with liquids or starches or "cheap and filling" food, said Dr Stephanie Chok, an independent researcher who wrote the report.

Financial priorities and a limited budget often shrink available food choices to what is affordable and available, despite an awareness of what is healthy, she added.

Housewife Lisa (not her real name), 41, said her family has enough money for food, but not enough for healthy food. Her husband earns $1,600 a month as a cleaner.

She said that even when she tries to cook healthier meals, her four children are picky eaters and the food is wasted.

The household receives food aid in the form of infrequent dry rations or supermarket vouchers.

Lisa said: "I am very grateful for whatever I receive and I will try to use it. Because I'm a housewife and I stay home and cook, I prefer food like fish or chicken."

The Beyond Social Services report also noted that some families felt the food aid given was unsuitable, and many preferred being able to select what to eat or buy.

Elderly residents collecting fresh produce during a food distribution under FairPrice's Food for Good Community Fridge initiative at Marine Terrace on Sept 23, 2021. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Local food charities have been working to address this - for example, through community fridges or community shops that allow those in need to take items for free or to use monthly free credits to purchase them; or through meal cards that can be used for free meals at participating hawker stalls or eateries.

Ms Sim Bee Hia, chief executive of Food From The Heart, said it emphasises dignity of choice. The charity partnered the Government Technology Agency to roll out Project Belanja last year.

Under the initiative, participants use a meal card to redeem meals from hawker stalls.

Over 53,000 meals have been redeemed so far and data from these redemptions is tracked via an app.

A Food from the Heart beneficiary redeeming a meal at a Project Belanja! stall using his card. PHOTO: FOOD FROM THE HEART

"Using data is the best way to hear the voice of the beneficiary. We can see their choices, what time they come to take items - and analyse their habits," said Ms Sim.

She noted that people in Singapore who face food insecurity are different from those in other countries due to a certain standard of living here.

"We must hear them and try to level up," she said, adding that this can be done by going beyond the basics of simply providing food.

Ms Nichol Ng, co-founder of The Food Bank, said it recently launched Feed the City 3.0, a scheme where beneficiaries use cards to buy food worth up to $50 a month from certain food and beverage outlets.

She said Singapore needs to look at food support beyond just filling stomachs, and this includes increasing overall well-being and mental wellness.

FFFA founder Nizar Mohamed Shariff said the next two key aspects of the food support he wants to provide are more nutrition and education on how to grow food.

FFFA recently began a pilot scheme that delivers 2kg of organic vegetables to 100 households a month. It is also prototyping a microgreens growing kit to teach families how to grow their own vegetables.

Organic vegetables that are delivered by Free Food For All volunteers to families in need. PHOTO: FREE FOOD FOR ALL

Mr Nizar said FFFA, as a smaller charity with more room to experiment, can try more innovative ways to lift households out of the need for food aid.

"Instead of looking at key performance indicators like the number of households served, we should look at how many can get out of their difficult situations," he said.

"We want to one day serve less, which would mean successful policy and impact."

Local social venture Food Citizen is conducting an online survey to look at the impact of Covid-19 on access to food and nutrition in Singapore, as well as the support from ground-up initiatives, among other things. It is part of exploratory research conducted on behalf of the Institute of Geography at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, which is looking at the effects of the pandemic on urban food systems.

Food insecurity has been an important topic even before the pandemic, and the number of people who need help has shot up since then, said Food Citizen co-creator Pui Cuifen.

Fellow co-creator Miriam Yeung said: "We want to look at people who are vulnerable in such a prosperous city like Singapore – you know they exist but you might not be aware of the extent."

The survey can be accessed here until the end of the month.