Commentary: Reduce waste by redistributing food surplus to those in need
Ensuring that food is not wasted and can be redistributed to those who are food-insecure must be a national vision, says NMP Anthea Ong.
SINGAPORE: The Resource Sustainability Bill, passed in Parliament last week, is a landmark legislation that will put into action better upstream management of waste that underpins the Zero Waste Masterplan.
Yet, the master plan should not be designed and implemented in silo to our social challenges.
Mitigating food loss presents a tremendous opportunity for us to resolve food security issues for vulnerable groups, an impassioned plea I made during the debate.
REVIEW GOOD SAMARITAN LAWS
Time is not on our side. We must urgently encourage food-loss-reducing behaviours through food labelling policies and expeditiously enacting Good Samaritan or Best Practice Laws.
The National Environmental Agency and Singapore Food Agency, as assured by the Senior Minister of State for Environment and Water Resources Dr Amy Khor in response to my call, are exploring Good Samaritan laws to ease business concerns over donation of excess food - similar to those already implemented in Italy and the United States.
Currently, the Singapore Food Agency does not distinguish between “use by” or “best before” and “expiry date”, resulting in huge food wastage because products are not allowed to be sold or distributed beyond expiry dates.
However, in many countries, including the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, use of all these different terms mean that after the food reaches its “use-by” date, the quality and flavour of the food is lowered but it is still fit for consumption.
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We must be clear in our policy on different date labels and begin to educate consumers on the meaning of each to reduce waste. Studies have shown that when consumers are clearly shown on the food label that “use by” and “best before” means lower food quality but not food safety, and how food waste results in negative environmental impact, they are more willing to pay for food that’s past its use-by/best-before dates.
Conscious labelling coupled with Good Samaritan laws will also clearly foster an environment that allows and encourages more food (which has gone past its ”best before” date but not exceeding say six months to ensure food safety) to be donated to charities.
In addition, the underused Business-IPC Partnership Scheme or BIPs, which gives 2.5 times tax-deduction to businesses for donations in kind, can be extended to include donation of edible food surplus to charities.
I have no doubt businesses can take the lead on food waste redistribution because I know many like Samsui Supplies through the Company of Good, a corporate giving initiative by National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre - which I am also involved with.
TACKLE FOOD INSECURITY
A lay estimation from the Household Expenditure Survey 2017/2018 comparing the expenditures of the lowest quintile Singaporeans suggests nearly 49 per cent of their income is spent on food.
Madam Gopal who lives in Toa Payoh is one such Singaporean. In her 70s, she has zero income and survives on a S$500 per month from her social service organisation. She saves a minimum of S$100 per month as a beneficiary of Free Food for All, a charity that receives and redistributes donated food.
ONE Singapore, a charity working on eradicating poverty, estimated there could be as many as 400,000 people in Singapore unable to meet basic needs like food, clothes, derived by examining how many among the lowest-quintile income groups are spending more than they are earning.
A 2018 study by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation also found one in five low-income households face severe food insecurity.
Yet every year, we generate 763,000 tonnes of food waste as a country. Let’s assume conservatively that only half of this or 382,000 tonnes can be redistributed.
This could make a total of 382 million meals, based on 1 kg per meal.
On average, three meals a day are taken so each person consumes 1,095 daily meals per year, feeding 390,000 people for an entire year.
I’m not under any illusion that it’s as simple as I’ve made out to be but I think we will agree this prospect is far from impossible.
A NEEDED NATIONAL EFFORT
There are several community groups that are already doing good work on the ground in this regard although clearly a national strategy is needed to optimise systemic impact and avoid duplication.
SG Food Rescue is one such group that have demonstrated there is much in our food value chain to be saved and redistributed. Its volunteers collect a staggering 1,500kg of unsold fresh produce once a week from Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre.
Sometimes they even collect twice a week. About 500 to 700kg of that goes to charities, namely, Free Food For All, Beyond Social Services and St Theresa’s Home that feed the needy, while the rest is sent to a soup kitchen in Little India, Krishna's Kitchen.
The soup kitchen turns the vegetables into meals to feed the hungry, especially migrant workers. About 200kg ends up with a community initiative in Marine Terrace, and one of the six public community fridges, benefiting low-income residents.
Not only will we drive food resource sustainability by reducing waste, such a national effort will also significantly relieve financially strapped households of a huge burden.
In addition, based on estimated costs for programmes like Meals-on-Wheels and Willing Hearts that provide more than 10,000 daily meals in total, close to S$15 million could be freed up and redirected to other aspects of social support for beneficiaries. They need more support because needs are changing with higher living standards and higher temperatures (requiring air-conditioning and more fans).
SUSTAINABILITY IS A FUTURE INVESTMENT
Engaging the business community must be a top priority because sustainability is a future investment for economic growth, new market opportunities and job creation.
Companies must be nudged out of their comfort zones into a greener and more innovative direction as we work towards building a circular economy.
This circular economy we strive for must include a virtuous food cycle because sustainability is also a social parameter to secure a more inclusive society.
The Zero Waste Masterplan must not be a wasted opportunity to bring the conversations of climate change and social impact to the same table.
If a small group of citizen volunteers like SG Food Rescue can move hundreds of tonnes of food loss every year to where they are needed most, imagine what we can do if we – government, business and community – truly commit our will and resources to a national vision of getting all Singaporeans who are food-insecure fed?
We can and must do this.
Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament, a social entrepreneur and Author of 50 Shades of Love.