Getting food donations right: Preventing wastage not a piece of cake

Non-profit group tries to ensure they match needs, finds other uses for unsuitable items

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The Food Bank Singapore has taken steps to minimise wastage and ensure donated food items match the needs of beneficiaries in its network of 350 social service organisations.
The Food Bank Singapore has taken steps to minimise wastage and ensure donated food items match the needs of beneficiaries in its network of 350 social service organisations.PHOTO: ST FILE

They are trash, but leftovers such as half-eaten sandwiches, mouldy fruits and vegetables, and half-empty drink cans are often found in donation bins for food gifts during the festive season.

For non-profit groups such as The Food Bank Singapore which collect such presents to bring cheer to poor families, such unwanted gifts contaminate other food in the bin.

Volunteers' time is also spent sorting out the good from the bad and the ugly.

Another major festive failing is the distribution of gifts, as vulnerable families are presented with an overabundance of food items such as rice, noodles and snacks.

The excess tends to end up in the trash can when it is not consumed before the expiry date.

Paradoxically, the feast will inevitably be followed by a famine until the next festive season.

It perhaps underlies the finding that one in five low-income households in Singapore faces severe food insecurity, according to a study last year by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation.

This meant that during a 12-month period, a family went hungry at least one meal-time or did not eat for a whole day because they did not have enough money or other resources to get food.

For the first time, steps are being taken at the national level to address these two issues: Food waste and the uneven nature of food distribution efforts.

  • Before you donate or distribute food items

  • • Read a charity's guidelines on donations it will accept before giving. Some take only non-perishable food items such as canned food.

    • Call a charity before donating to find out the specific items on its wish list.

    • When distributing food items door to door, make an effort to find out beneficiaries' dietary preferences, and allow them to refuse or exchange a food item for something they find more suitable.

    • Volunteer regularly at a fixed location instead of on an ad hoc basis to get a better understanding of what the beneficiaries need.

    • Where possible, work with the community to find out what its needs are. One way is to rope in residents in a rental flat community as volunteers, for instance.

    • Find ways to empower beneficiaries and offer them more options, such as giving them food vouchers or having a centralised drop-off point for food donations where they can choose what they want.

    SOURCES: THE VOLUNTEER SWITCHBOARD, BEYOND SOCIAL SERVICES, FREE FOOD FOR ALL, KEEPING HOPE ALIVE

A work group that includes non-profit groups such as The Food Bank Singapore, the Ministry of Social and Family Development and other government agencies has been set up, and its first meeting was held in October.

Details on what initiatives it will roll out are being worked out, but in the meantime, The Food Bank Singapore's co-founder Nichol Ng is hoping various volunteer groups leading food distribution efforts islandwide will coordinate their efforts by mapping out who looks after which area, rather than having groups overlap in the same area.

The Food Bank Singapore itself has also taken steps to minimise wastage and ensure donated food items match the needs of beneficiaries in its network of 350 social service organisations.

The issue is urgent as the heap of unsuitable donations each year keeps growing. Last year, 27.5 tonnes of donations - or 5 per cent of the 550 tonnes it received - failed to meet The Food Bank Singapore's requirements.

But it strives to find other uses for them, including converting expired or unsealed food staples such as rice, noodles, pasta and flour into animal feed, which is then given to animal shelters.

It has been doing so for the past four years, said Ms Jessie Tan, a senior management associate at The Food Bank Singapore.

Non-food items that may still be useful, such as clothes or toilet paper, are sent to the social service organisations it works with, Ms Tan added. These moves have halved the amount of discarded items.

The case of thoughtless giving came into sharp focus and sparked a robust debate in August, when the home of an elderly man, who was suffering from dementia, was found cluttered with hundreds of expired packets of instant noodles and more than 50 bottles of soya sauce from donors.

They had gone to waste as he did not cook.

 
 
 
 

To prevent such mismatches, The Food Bank Singapore sends an inventory of its food items to partner organisations for them to ask for what they need, said Ms Ng.

"If an organisation is getting food too frequently, we ensure the supplies are rotated towards those who have taken less," she added.

It is also planning to set up its own central kitchen next year to serve hot cooked meals prepared with donated ingredients, said Ms Ng.

Currently, such food dished out by various organisations is often served cold, and some wastage is inevitable as some people prefer hot food.

With the central kitchen, the food can be frozen and dispensed via vending machines that can heat it up when a person redeems a meal.

"In this way, the food is given extra shelf life as it is always hot when served," Ms Tan said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2019, with the headline 'Preventing wastage of food donations not a piece of cake'. Subscribe