October 28, 2020
Photos by: Caroline Chia | Words by: Marcus Khoo
(Photo above) Mr Gary Tan, 55, programme assistant at Moral Seniors Activity Centre (Kaki Bukit), helps the elderly with their purchases from a Food Pantry 2.0 vending machine. Staff at the centre have been encouraging the elderly to attend daily exercise sessions, followed by a shopping trip to the machines.
One in 10 Singaporean households experienced food insecurity at least once in the last 12 months.
Although Singapore is ranked as the most food-secure nation in the 2019 Global Food Security Index, food insecurity is an ongoing issue.
Unfortunately, hunger is not something that can be easily spotted since “it is not specific to a face, a type, a genre, age group or race,” said Ms Nichol Ng, chief food officer and co-founder of The Food Bank Singapore (Food Bank).
In addition, Ms Ng, 42, highlighted that there is a social stigma attached when it comes to receiving aid.
“They (Singaporeans in need) find that it is very paiseh (embarrassing) to get food aid,” she said.
(Above) (L-R) Food Bank management associates, Mavis Lee, 26, and Wendy Poh, 24, stock the shelves of Food Pantry 2.0 vending machines at Moral Seniors Activity Centre (Kaki Bukit), Blk 544 Bedok North St. 3. Each shelf is filled with a ‘base’ such as rice, noodles or canned food, and a ‘filler’ like biscuits or sweets.
According to Food Bank’s The Hunger Report, published by Lien Centre for Social Innovation, “embarrassment” was one of the top three reasons cited for avoiding food aid, followed by insufficient awareness of available food support, and the belief that others need it more than themselves.
To combat this issue, Food Bank started a vending machine project, Food Pantry 2.0, in October 2019 in conjunction with World Food Day. The machines currently serve as an automated process for beneficiaries and the public to purchase donated dry food, such as cereal, rice, oil and even premium products such as abalone, that are close to expiry. Foods in each shelf are priced at $2 for the public or 2 credits for beneficiaries with Food Bank cards.
“The vending machine is very appropriate as it is open to the public, and people are not able to identify if you are someone in need or regular folk tapping your ez-link card (to make a purchase),” said Ms Ng, on how the machines help to eliminate the stigma attached to receiving food aid.
Beneficiaries identified by family service centres (FSCs) and social service agencies would receive a Food Bank card which allows them to purchase food with a monthly stored value of 50 credits.
(Above) Mr Gary Tan, programme assistant at Moral Seniors Activity Centre (Kaki Bukit), helps beneficiaries make purchases at the dry rations vending machine outside the centre.
Social stigma wasn’t their only concern. Dieticians and social workers had shared feedback about how cooked meals received by beneficiaries from other charities and non-profit organisations lacked nutritional value, as well as taste.
“We were told the food tastes bad; no nutrition, no respect to the end recipient — and (they had) no choice,” said Ms Ng.
Some beneficiaries even left the food at void decks for stray dogs to consume, she added.
Seeing an urgent need for change, Food Bank decided to take on this challenge as part of their vision to reduce food wastage and insecurity.
In phase two of Food Pantry 2.0, Food Bank, in partnership with Philips Foundation, will be rolling out affordable and nutritious, flash-frozen bento meals through a cooked meals vending machine. Meals purchased or redeemed can be heated in a separate microwave on the spot for beneficiaries to enjoy 24/7.
“We want to give back the choice and liberty of when beneficiaries want to consume (meals), and guide them along to eating better.”
Ms Nichol Ng, chief food officer and co-founder, The Food Bank Singapore
Philips worked with the Singapore Heart Foundation (SHF) to ensure every bento meal meets nutritional requirements and guidelines. In 2021, these meals will be prepared, cooked and blast frozen in consultation with renowned Chef Christophe Megel, a Food Bank board member and former executive chef of The Ritz-Carlton, in Food Bank’s upcoming central kitchen.
“We want to give back the choice and liberty of when beneficiaries want to consume (meals), and guide them along to eating better,” said Ms Ng. “We want to be able to feed the underprivileged, at their choice and at their time.”
Madam Ng Nak Kee, a beneficiary residing in Kaki Bukit, finds the machine “very convenient because it saves time”. The 66-year-old is able to purchase her favourite stewed pork, a popular item, from the dry rations machine at the Moral Seniors Activity Centre (Kaki Bukit) Blk 544 Bedok North St. 3. The other two dry rations machines are located at Blk 131 Toa Payoh Lorong 1 and outside a migrant worker dormitory at Tuas South.
(Above) Vending machines are stocked with dry rations like cereal, canned soups, nuts, and instant noodles. Foods in each shelf are priced at $2 for the public or 2 credits for beneficiaries with Food Bank cards.
These vending machines not only provide convenience, but they also collect data on food consumption and demand. With this data, Food Bank will be able to better understand which products are most in-demand, the time of day foods are most redeemed, and how frequently. This will improve and streamline food aid distribution across the island as more vending machines are placed in the future.
“The Food Bank is not just here to feed the hungry, but also to reduce food wastage,” said Ms Ng.
The charity was recently awarded the President’s Volunteerism & Philanthropy Award for the “Organisations of Good” category. But for Ms Ng and her team, Food Bank’s work doesn’t stop there.
With plans in place, Food Bank is looking to deploy 100 Food Pantry 2.0 vending machines in HDB estates island-wide, staying on track to meet their goal of ending food insecurity in Singapore by 2025.
Register now to hear from The Food Bank Singapore and other PVPA 2020 Special Edition awardees at the virtual TEDxSingapore Salon sessions, “Our Finest Hour in the City of Good”. The second session takes place October 31, 11am, with the “Organisations of Good” winners and special commendation awardees. Check out the full list of PVPA 2020 Special Edition awardees at Cityofgood.sg/PVPA