SINGAPORE: As some Singaporeans hunker down and stock up on food essentials in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, charities and volunteer groups are concerned about the impact on their ability to get supplies of food out to those relying on their help.
Since the Government raised its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level to Orange on Friday, schools and companies have curtailed many activities, while anxious shoppers emptied the shelves at NTUC FairPrice outlets and wet markets.
READ: Singapore raises DORSCON level to Orange; schools to suspend inter-school, external activities
Some charity groups like Free Food For All (FFA), which provides free cooked meals and rations to low-income Singaporeans, are worried about what the stockpiling by consumers could mean for donations.
“I see a potential hit on the amount of food donations we will receive,” said FFA’s founder Nizar Mohd Shariff. “We typically receive (from retailers) food that is not sold or near expiry – but if items are flying off the shelves, what’s left to be given to us?”
The kind of mentality spurring the panic-buying is also worrying. “On normal days, people think, ‘I’ll donate if I have enough.’ But when people are hoarding stuff out of fear, donations would be the last thing on their mind.”
To discourage stockpiling, NTUC FairPrice has since placed limits on the purchase of high-demand items like rice, and reassured customers that it has ready stock of essential items.
Food From The Heart’s (FFTH) chief executive Sim Bee Hia is concerned about how this might impact donations through its NTUC Shop & Donate scheme, where the public can order food staples to be delivered to a charity.
This “has always been a steady source of food for us, especially rice”, said Ms Sim.
SHARP DROP IN VOLUNTEERS
But a far more urgent concern for the food assistance groups is the drying-up of their pool of volunteers in the past week or so.
“There isn’t enough manpower to get food out to people in need,” said Ms Nichol Ng, co-founder of The Food Bank Singapore.
People are forgetting that while this virus is going on, people in need still need to eat and life goes on.
At FFTH, Ms Sim said she was “scrambling” to find volunteers to pack almost 2,000 food ration packs by the end of this week. A desperate call was put out on Facebook.
“From Jan 31 till now, about 12 volunteer sessions with corporations and schools, who were supposed to help with the packing of food rations, were cancelled,” she said. “There were also individuals who signed up but were a no-show.”
The Food Bank Singapore relies on students to sort out and process public donations of canned food, biscuits and other groceries, or huge pallets of food from industry donors, before these can be redirected to beneficiaries.
But since cases of the novel coronavirus began cropping up in Singapore, groups have been cancelling. “Our student volunteer pool has been wiped out,” said Ms Ng, adding that beneficiaries who have been getting rations from them twice a month “may only get it once a month”.
The Food Bank also has a programme where companies, as part of a corporate responsibility programme for staff, can buy items that beneficiaries need, pack them, and go distributing door to door. “But now there’s none of that… The total food donation volume is down by 50 per cent,” said Ms Ng.
For Willing Hearts, a cooked food charity that provides 6,500 free meals a day islandwide, the lack of manpower means it now takes longer to prepare and deliver food.
“Companies are telling employees to stay home, while school volunteers have completely disappeared in the last two weeks,” said Mr Teh Eng Hua, the president of Willing Hearts.
But do or die, the charities that CNA Insider spoke to are doing all they can to get food to those who need it. They rely on their few staff and the odd volunteers who still turn up to help.
The Food Bank is appealing to companies that can’t volunteer their time for now, to donate money instead so that it can buy the provisions needed to continue its service to beneficiaries.
SPARE A THOUGHT FOR THEM
FFTH is determined that its beneficiaries see no disruption to their food supply. “For the lower-income and vulnerable groups, seeing the empty supermarket shelves would have brought a sense of uneasiness because they are already struggling financially,” said Ms Sim.
That’s why we need to honour our commitment. Food should be the last thing they are worried about.
The good news is that those in need can turn to other sources of free food – like community fridges in Yishun stocked by donors and food rescuers, and FFTH’s The Community Shop @ Mountbatten just launched on Saturday.
While shoppers were packing supermarkets the day after DORSCON Orange was declared, Ms Sim said: “It was humbling to see that our beneficiaries were getting what they needed (at our free shop) without having to go through the frenzy at Sheng Shiong or NTUC FairPrice.”
Indeed, the weekend’s binge-buying had charities appealing to Singaporeans to think of the impact of their actions on the low-income group.
For instance, Ms Ng pointed out that those on assistance get NTUC FairPrice vouchers to buy groceries – and if the shelves were empty, they’d be forced to find the cash to buy elsewhere.
She added: “We can’t stop people from panic buying. But if they really want to buy stuff, they could think of those in need and buy some for us as well,”
Ms Sim took a lighter perspective. “I hope people realise that they bought too much,” she said with a laugh. “And then they’ll donate to us.”
HOW YOU CAN CONTRIBUTE
Food Bank Singapore: To donate, visit https://www.giving.sg/the-food-bank-singapore-ltd
Free Food For All: To donate or volunteer, visit https://freefood.org.sg
National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre: To volunteer or donate to various COVID-19 charity efforts, visit https://www.giving.sg/sgunited
TOUCH Community Services: To volunteer for Meals-On-Wheels delivery, call 68046565
Willing Hearts: To volunteer, visit http://www.willinghearts.org.sg