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What You Need To Know About Food Donations: Nichol Ng of Food Bank Singapore

We speak with The Food Bank Singapore founder and DBS Insignia member Nichol Ng about the myths and truth about food donations and food insecurity in Singapore.

Nichol Ng: "One in every ten people in Singapore is food insecure. That’s close to half a million people who are unable to regularly put food on the table throughout the month."

As the holiday season begins and the year comes to a close, we usually start thinking of ways to give back to society. And one of the easiest ways to give back is through food drives. For years now, Singaporeans have championed feeding programmes around the world and we have made a valuable contribution to the lives of thousands, but little do we know, there are people here in our very own backyards which are unable to put food on the table.

To say food is in Nichol Ng’s blood is pretty much one of the biggest understatements you could make. Having grown up in a family that ran a food distribution company, her passion for food began at a young age. So when it was time for her to join the family trade, she took it in her stride and successfully took the company into the new millennium. Since 2007, Ng has served as the Managing Director for FoodXervices Inc. She also runs FoodXervices Inc’s sister companies GroXers Inc, LogiXtics LLP and PlotX Inc; and successfully launched KooriMo, a chestnut-based ice cream brand. But her love for food didn’t stop there. It also fed her drive to give back to society, resulting in the founding of The Food Bank Singapore and Support for Eating Disorders Singapore.

Here we speak with the passion-driven foodie about food donating, food wastage and the very real problem of food insecurity within our borders.

Where did the idea to start a food bank stem from?

Singapore imports 92% of all its food and the odd thing is, we throw away 30% of all our food. In 2015, we threw away over 785,500 tonnes of it. After being in the food distribution business for some time, we realised that many of our peers (food traders, importers, restaurants and hotels) were throwing away food and that the way they did quality checks on their products was very extravagant. Anything that was blemished or imperfect in any way was thrown away.

So since the food industry wastes so much food and there are so many hungry people, we thought, why don’t we feed the hungry with perfectly edible food that they are going to throw away? And at the same time, people started saying that we’re also doing our bit for the environment by reducing food waste. So we’ve also kind of become champions for that.

Is there a need for a food bank in Singapore?

One in every ten people in Singapore is food insecure. That’s close to half a million people who are unable to regularly put food on the table throughout the month. And 80% of this group of people are what constitutes the working poor. Singapore’s unemployment rate is extremely low at approximately 2%. And though technically, that doesn’t count as full unemployment, only structural unemployment, the reality is, people still have problem putting food on the table. I personally think the reasons behind this are that there is no poverty line and no minimum wage in Singapore. So you have people earning below $1000, trying to make ends meet, cover rent and food. These people also have full families to feed with that salary.

The thing is you don’t really see these people around. Singapore’s policy is that everyone should have a roof over their heads. The government puts the homeless in rental homes until they are ready to survive on their own. But the rental on these flats is also steadily rising. So contrary to what people think and we speak to a lot of corporates and expats, there are poor people and food insecurity in Singapore.

SLIDESHOW: Nichol Ng: "Singapore imports 92% of all its food and the odd thing is, we throw away 30% of all our food. In 2015, we threw away over 785,500 tonnes of it."

What are some of the challenges you faced when you first started The Food Bank Singapore?

Food companies were the ones that we thought of approaching first when we started the food bank. Everyone in the industry knows that the big companies cannot distribute any product that has a shelf-life of under three months and those products under that segment are thrown away. When we first started we thought companies based in Singapore would be very forward-thinking, but the reality is they aren’t.

These large firms, distributors and retailers were very reluctant to do food redistribution or donation. They asked questions like: what if a person eats my food and falls ill? They would rather give you a $20,000 cheque than give you $3,000 worth of food. We’ve had business owners ask if we could ensure that the people who distributed their products would be discreet about it, because people in the industry think that if a company has excess product to donate, it isn’t doing well. Another concern for these business owners was that it would be more expensive for them to donate food than throw it away, because now they would have to hire people to segregate food to keep, donate or throw away. It was a very warped way of thinking.

Have you seen any traction in food donating?

Because we have been very outspoken about this, there is less fear in the industry now about food donations. Part of that could also be because they see that we’ve been doing this for so many years and there haven’t been any reports of people falling ill, so the liability concern is lessened. Food donations overall have definitely increased. When we first started in 2012, we only received two tonnes of food in that whole year. As of last year, we are now receiving 60 tonnes of food on average per month. And I believe we are just scraping the surface.

Do you prefer food donations or cash donations at The Food Bank Singapore?

At the food bank, we don’t only champion food donation, we champion food wastage reduction as well. Sure, everyone needs money to cover the overheads, but a food bank without food is not a food bank. What’s most important to us is food donations. That said, cash donations are also important. This we use to buy things that food donations cannot cover, for example, everyday products like rice and milk — things that people require but aren’t often donated.

Cash donations also go into our $10 and $20 healthier food bundles. What people used to do in the past was pool money and then go buy food from the supermarket. But they are buying at retail price. By using our industry network, we can buy fresh food at cost-plus prices, which is much lower than at retail. So for instance, we can pack about $15 worth of retail-priced food in a $10 bundle, so we save a lot more.

If someone wanted to make donations to a cause they are passionate about, how do they go about doing so?

Currently, we work with 183 beneficiary organisations. Like food banks around the world, we do not work directly on the ground because we do not want duplicate what other charities are doing. Instead, we recruit charity organisations. Everyone has a different passion — some want to help kids, others want to help the elderly. If an individual wanted to pledge a certain amount to a particular sector of the needy, we will enlist the help of the organisations that target that group of people and we provide the food bundles to these groups to distribute.

The Food Bank Singapore will be working with DBS to raise funds and food donations for the people in need. One idea is for DBS Insignia Visa Infinite Cardmembers to redeem their DBS reward points – often used in exchange for travel miles and vouchers – for monetary or food bundle donations to specific sectors of the needy of choice. For DBS Insignia, it’s all about making a difference, and the future of the business lies in being a force for good.

If you’re looking to make a food donation, Food Bank Singapore has numerous Bank Boxes across the island. The full list of locations can be found here.