Live more, Waste less

The beauty of ugly food

Fruit and vegetables top the list of food waste in Singapore, making up almost half of that generated by the commercial and industrial sectors that handle fish, other seafood and fruit and vegetables. In this third instalment of a six-part series on food waste, The Sunday Times, in partnership with DBS Bank, gets to the root of the issue. Judith Tan and Vanessa Liu join volunteers as they swoop in to stem the problem and give the produce a second lease of life, even as the food industry pushes towards zero food waste.

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In 2019, Singapore generated around 744 million kilograms of food waste, close to half of that involved fruit and vegetables. Food Rescue Sengkang aims to cut that by finding more use for "ugly" food.

As volunteers dart in and out of the 30 or so stores located at Block 16 of Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, grabbing boxes of unwanted fruit and vegetables, the call rings out from nearly every vendor or a worker: "Wait, wait... There's more!"

It serves as a reminder of not only the generosity of the shopkeepers there, but also the scale of food waste in Singapore, especially of produce. Fruit and vegetables, which do not always take kindly to over-handling, are notorious for undergoing a strict process of aesthetic filtering in order to be sold in supermarkets.

Dr Kenichi Ito, an assistant professor of psychology at Nanyang Technological University, says supermarkets place specific requirements on local farmers regarding the colour, size and shape of produce, and consumers are less likely to buy "ugly products" that they find unappealing to eat.

"In my opinion, it could be related to the 'beautiful is good' stereotype. People tend to ascribe positive feelings and good quality to aesthetically beautiful people, although their looks are not associated with quality. Such stereotypes could apply to fruit and vegetables," he says.

Ms Yeo Pei Shan, co-founder of start-up UglyFood, says: "Singaporeans tend to want everything (to be) perfect and value for money. Some of them even add to the problem by pressing or squeezing the fruit or vegetables for sale without much thought, turning fresh fruit into ugly fruit."

Food waste is one of the biggest waste streams in Singapore and the amount generated has ballooned by about 20 per cent over the past 10 years. The National Environment Agency estimates that 40 per cent of food waste generated in the country is from the commercial and industrial sectors that handle fruit and vegetables, fish and other seafood.

According to market and consumer data provider Statista, Singapore imported 535,339 tonnes of vegetables last year while producing 24,300 tonnes. The country also imported 428,869 tonnes of fruit. During the same period, around 744,000 tonnes of food were wasted, almost half of which were fruit and vegetables.

The mountains of produce deemed too unsightly for sale, the stacks of boxes containing still-fresh cabbages and lettuce left to wilt in the heat because there is no space in the cold rooms, and baskets of over-ripe bananas and papaya make up between 15 per cent and 50 per cent of fruit and vegetables at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre. They are destined for the bins every day.

Mr Tan Choon Huat, 50, a committee member of the Singapore Fruits and Vegetables Importers and Exporters Association, says: "After a long haul, the conditions of some of the vegetables deteriorate and so they need to be trimmed. Trimmings amount to between 10 per cent and 50 per cent. As for fruit, those that are bruised or blemished will be discarded because they do not attract customers. That is less than 30 per cent of those imported."

Local farms like Yili Vegetation and Trading say there is 30 per cent wastage during the process from harvesting to quality-check packing - citing cosmetic filtering as the top reason.

"People accept only vegetables that are aesthetically pretty, that is, without any holes," says Ms Toh Ying Ying, business manager of Yili. Yili produces an average of 720 tonnes of cai xin hua, xiao bai cai, sharp spinach, round spinach and kangkong.

Blemished or not, most of the produce is still fresh and edible, and volunteers are giving it a new lease of life. No fewer than three groups - SG Food Rescue, Food Rescue Sengkang and Food Bank - are at the wholesale centre on different days to cart away lorry loads in their bid to save food from being thrown out even before it reaches the dinner table.

It is donated to soup kitchens and charity organisations that feed the needy, as well as to homes for the elderly and families in need.

The Sunday Times team spent a Saturday tailing volunteers from Food Rescue Sengkang as they collected discarded produce and transported it to 10 distribution points across Singapore. They also set up a distribution point at Fernvale Link for residents to collect the rescued produce. On that particular day, the group collected 20 wooden pallets of produce weighing more than 15 tonnes.

Founded by husband-and-wife team Derek Ong, 55, and Janet Lee, 43, the non-profit Food Rescue Sengkang was launched in May last year to help Sengkang residents save money on groceries and to put discarded food to good use.

The couple run Wizard Home Services, a local cleaning firm.

"Whenever we go down to Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, we split into two groups of volunteers," says Mr Ong. "One will go to the fruit section and the other to the vegetable section. We comb the two sections simultaneously, asking for fruit and vegetables that are discarded. Sometimes we get more, sometimes we get less."

Food Rescue Sengkang volunteers packing boxes of fruits given up by wholesalers onto pallets at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, on Nov 7, 2020. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Ms Lee adds: "Not all vendors give us blemished food items. There are many who also donate quality items that are surplus and which do not fit into the cold rooms. Some reserve items that are in perfect condition just so we have enough to distribute.

"We are also lucky to have volunteer drivers from logistic companies who provide transport."

Mr Ong says: "In the beginning, there were not many volunteers, only a few friends were helping. Right now there are more people volunteering because they realise this is for a good cause. After all, we are cutting down on food waste, saving the environment and helping people cut their grocery bills."

After collection, the food is sorted into cartons and distributed in estates like Fernvale and Toa Payoh.

Ms Lee adds: "We do this to reduce waste, and since the volume is usually way too much to donate just to homes and other charities, we decided to share it with our neighbours. Being in a new estate, many from the sandwiched class here tend to fall through the cracks, so we decided to help in our little ways."

The group also collects leftover bread from bakeries on weekdays and distribute it the same night.

Volunteers from homes and soup kitchens collect the food and vegetables from the distribution points closest to their organisations. Food Rescue Sengkang does not restrict anyone from participating in its initiative, whether as a volunteer or collecting produce for their own use, "as long as they can accept that these are rescued foods".

Volunteers of Food Rescue Sengkang getting first dibs on fruits and vegetables salvaged from Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre before opening up distribution to residents at a pavilion in Fernvale Link, on Nov 7, 2020. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

As testimony, there were dozens of residents standing in two lines at Fernvale to get some greens.

Ms Lee says: "Derek and I are in this for the long haul. We are committed to cutting the amount of food waste, which poses a serious problem not only for Singapore but also the world.

"By doing this, we also hope to educate people that not all ugly fruit and vegetables should be destined for the bins. This way, we can work towards zero waste."

  • A poster from a campaign last year urging people not to waste food. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

    • Order only what you can eat. Start with less food on the table and order more later, if you need to.

    • Come back another day to try other dishes instead of trying everything on your first visit.

    • Ask for advice. Consult the server on portion sizes to determine how much to order.

    • Downsize your order. If you intend to eat less, ask for a smaller portion.

    • Swap sides. If a dish contains something you don't eat, request a replacement when ordering.

    • Share dishes. Offer a portion to your dining partners before you start eating.

    • Don't rush to order more. It takes 15-20 minutes after eating to start feeling full.

    • Appreciate the effort that goes into producing your food by finishing everything on your plate.

    • Give your feedback to the restaurant so that it can improve the dish and avoid future wastage.



The Sunday Times spoke to Ms Katrina Lee, 22, chief executive and co-founder of Savour!, a Singapore-based e-commerce and sponsorship platform tackling food waste and food insecurity.


Q: How did the issue of food waste in Singapore first catch your attention?

A: Food insecurity was what I witnessed when I volunteered with community service clubs and non-profit organisations to distribute rations to low-income households in Singapore. I also noticed that the beneficiaries did not want some of the donated items such as canned food and instant noodles - staples which most of them already had.

While working part-time in the food and beverage sector, I also observed how restaurants and food kiosks threw away perfectly edible food at the end of the day as it was more convenient than reselling or donating it.

Q: How did you then come up with the idea for Savour!?

A: I started out with a rough idea to reallocate food waste to help the needy. It pivoted around today's Savour!, a one-stop business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce marketplace website and mobile app that connects retailers and importers to other companies and non-profit organisations to procure regular, expiring, blemished and surplus food at corporate, bulk or charity discounts to cut food waste.

Q: What were some of the challenges you and Savour! faced at the start?

A: One of the biggest challenges was getting buy-in from the first merchant and customer.

As a student entrepreneur with an idea, it was difficult to convince established businesses. I started by cold-calling potential customers and merchants. I sent e-mails to 100 merchants seeking partnerships, but only one replied.

Many small and medium-sized enterprises had not heard about sustainability. We spent a long time trying to convince them of the benefits of reducing food waste via the platform to recoup costs and clear inventory. I guess my persistence paid off and after about a year, Savour! was officially launched.

Q: So why not gather a group of volunteers to do the job?

A: There are currently many established and large food rescue groups in Singapore and I learnt that they have many inefficiencies in the manual processes. These, I felt, could be made more effective with technology, especially since time is of the essence for expiring, blemished and surplus food. Savour! allows our B2B customers easy access to the available products with just a few clicks.

Q: How far has Savour! come since it was just an idea in your mind?

A: To date, Savour! has over 1,000 platform listings and about 140 merchants and B2B customers. They include restaurant Grain, non-profit organisations like the Salvation Army and student groups such as the NUS Students' Community Service Club.

We are also collaborating with the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, National Council of Social Service and National Youth Council to raise awareness of Savour! among their members.

Q: What's in the future for you and Savour!?

A: Savour! has expanded its offerings to include regular food, corporate gifts and office supplies made from recyclable and biodegradable products. It is also raising awareness of food waste and food insecurity through education, marketing campaigns and webinars.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2020, with the headline The beauty of ugly food. Subscribe