Why in a cheap food paradise, some Singaporeans are still going hungry

Why in a cheap food paradise, some Singaporeans are still going hungry

A cleaner unable to work, a family with a 4-room flat, a single dad in debt – those experiencing food insecurity are more diverse than you think. Here’s what they’re going through, in the first of a 2-part special report.

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Going without lunch, 8-year-old Katie assuaged her hunger with water, while her dad struggled to pay off debts. (Photo: Goh Chiew Tong)

*This story has been updated to reflect clarifications from the Ministry of Social And Family Development (MSF) to provide information on some of the profiles who are its current and past SSO clients.

SINGAPORE: Rice, hot water and salt to taste. Shanger Pannerchelvam remembers a time when these were the only ingredients his family could afford for dinner. He was only 12 years old. 

His mother had to stop work as a cleaner at a condominium when artery disease affected her legs. One year later, his father fell into clinical depression and left his fast-food job. Just like that, the family had no breadwinner.

Like most adolescent boys, Shanger had a burgeoning appetite - which a small bowl of porridge was unable to satisfy. “I was full of anger as I ate. I’d think to myself, why must I eat this?” he recalled.

After dinner, he’d go to sleep. “There was nothing I could do about it. I slept so that I wouldn’t feel any emotions.”

That was his only meal of the day. In the morning, he’d go to school with an empty stomach, fighting hunger pangs through recess because he’d given his S$1 school meal voucher to his 8-year-old brother.

“He had his own coupon but it wasn’t enough. He was always hungry also,” said Shanger, now 22.

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This plain rice was what Shanger and his brother once had to survive on every day. (All photos: Goh Chiew Tong, Christy Yip, Rauf Khan)

The family of four was given help with the bills, and food rations. But the latter wasn’t enough. The brothers resorted to begging for money from strangers after school. 

“We’d give the ‘poor thing’ face, say our Ez-link cards had no money and we couldn’t get home,” said Shanger.

“We would ask for a dollar each for transport. Then we’d use this to buy a plate of chicken rice to share.” 

HUNGER IN A FOOD SECURE NATION 

A simple dish like chicken rice is also a luxury to 55-year-old Azhar Ibad. It’s a S$2 meal he can afford to have only once a week. 

The rest of the time, it’s instant noodles for the cleaning supervisor, who has been unable to work for a year due to growing weakness in his limbs that doctors suspect might be Parkinson’s disease.

While he waits for his ComCare assistance to be renewed, his kitchen cabinet is filled with packets of Maggi, cereal and Milo. “If I feel my stomach full, okay already. No choice,” he said. “I eat this to survive.” 

In a food paradise like Singapore, where cheap eats abound around almost every street corner, why are instant noodles a staple and emblem of resignation for some?

What makes putting food on the table a struggle for them, in a nation ranked No 1 on The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security Index in December 2019? 

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There is no national data on the extent of food insecurity in Singapore. But aside from the index (which used gauges like affordability, availability, quality and safety of food), there are at least two other indicative reports.

Some 4.1 per cent of Singaporeans faced moderate to severe food insecurity between 2016 and 2018, according to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019 report by the United Nations. 

The report took into account both survey responses and country-level data such as food consumption and availability. (By comparison, the figure was 5.4 per cent for South Korea, 8.1 per cent for Indonesia and 13.4 per cent for Australia.) 

Locally, a study conducted by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation at the Singapore Management University (SMU) surveyed 236 Singaporeans in four low-income neighbourhoods being served by food support groups. It found that nearly 1 in 5 participants in these areas reported severe food insecurity in 2018. 

“It was surprising because in a country like Singapore, where the stereotype is that there is no hunger, we were expecting to find just a handful of people,” said SMU associate professor of political science John Donaldson,  while stressing that the findings didn’t represent Singapore as a whole.

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Would you want to live on instant noodles everyday, for months? asks Azhar Ibad, 55.

To be severely food insecure means being in the shoes of someone like Shanger – not knowing where your next meal is coming from, having to skip one, or even go an entire day without eating.

But more generally, food insecurity refers to cases like Azhar’s: The lack of access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, due to financial or physical constraints.

In other words, being food secure “is not just about being fed, because you can eat instant noodles every day,” said Nichol Ng, co-founder of The Food Bank Singapore. “But that doesn’t provide you with the nutrition.”

As to why food insecurity exists – ‘poverty’ is the too-easy answer to give. 

Yet, 27 per cent of participants in the Lien Centre survey had household incomes of S$2,000 or more. (Eligibility for ComCare assistance cuts off at S$1,900 household income or S$650 per capita income.)

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Nor is Singapore short of safety nets for those in need: From Government schemes such as ComCare and the Silver Support Scheme, to the efforts of a plethora of social service agencies, charities, religious organisations, grassroots groups, and community do-gooders.

So why, then, do some fall through the cracks? And who are they?

As CNA Insider discovered – after tracking vulnerable families and individuals over months, and speaking to researchers and assistance groups – those who experience food insecurity are a surprisingly diverse group: One that can’t be defined by housing type, family size, age, or income group alone.

WATCH: Hunger in Singapore - the documentary, part 1 (20:08)

BEYOND THE ELDERLY POOR

The elderly poor often spring first to mind as an at-risk group – and not just for the lack of savings or income.

Particularly for those who live alone, sickness, limited mobility and frailty pose a mammoth challenge to the simple act of cooking for themselves. “Some, because of physical or mental health, aren’t able to go downstairs and get food, even if it’s just a short distance from home,” said Sam Ngeow, centre manager of TOUCH Home Care.

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Frailty contributes to food insecurity among the elderly living alone.

Fion Phua, the founder of volunteer group Keeping Hope Alive, recalls in June last year finding a famished 79-year-old man lying on the floor of his one-room flat in Marsiling, too weak to move.

The man – a former security guard who had not been working since April after being injured in a fall – had not eaten in three days, she said. “We had to send him to the hospital.” 

READ: Ploughing on: The faces and insecurities of Singapore’s elderly working poor

But, the elderly poor are also high on the list of vulnerable groups that receive attention. 

Not only has the Pioneer Generation package made a “real and important difference” in recent years, say many observers, the elderly are also the target of numerous social service agencies, volunteers and NGOs. 

The resulting irony is, such seniors can end up over-served by multiple well-meaning groups. Indeed, most of the elderly poor whom CNA Insider encountered in various neighbourhoods were receiving food rations or free meals.

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Madam Tay Seok Har gets free packed meals to help feed her 70-year-old husband, mum and bed-ridden daughter.

The flip side of this, however, is that other food insecure groups whose needs may not be so plain to see, or so simple to ascertain, find themselves falling under the radar.

‘HIDDEN’ FIGURES

A stay-at-home mother of five, Fay* found herself going on Facebook to look for donors offering milk powder or food. She had asked various organisations for help, only to be told: You’re not staying in a rental flat.

The 36-year-old and her husband had bought a four-room HDB flat, and after they moved in in April last year, she said, the floors started to crack and there were leaks everywhere - an unsafe situation for her children, aged two to 18.

To pay for the renovations, her husband, a technician, borrowed “a few thousand dollars” from licensed money lenders, a debt they are still now paying off. 

“Living in a purchase flat does not explain our daily struggles,” she said. 

Sometimes I see my friends staying in rental flats, they seem happier. They get more assistance.

The family is currently getting dry food rations from their Family Service Centre.

While the majority of food-insecure participants in the Lien Centre study did live in one- and two-room flats, 40 per cent live in three-room flats or bigger. Food assistance groups say that, while rare, they’ve even encountered those living in condominiums or landed property who needed their aid.

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These Singaporeans are overlooked as they are often not eligible for financial aid, observers noted.

To ensure that funds go to those who really need it, ComCare assistance, as well as aid disbursed by some larger welfare organisations, often involves some form of means testing. An applicant’s household income, number of household members and flat type are factors that can be taken into account.

But such data doesn’t always reveal the whole picture, others say. Sim Bee Hia, chief executive officer of Food From The Heart, has encountered struggling families with a household income of more than S$3,000. 

“If you were to do a house visit, you’d see the wife bedridden and fed through a tube, three young children, and a mentally challenged nephew,” she said. 

The danger in means-testing is that people who genuinely need help will fall through the cracks because they do not fit the criteria in one way or another, said economist Walter Theseira, an associate professor at Singapore University of Social Sciences.

“We often think people who stay in larger flats don’t need financial assistance since they could afford a big flat," he said. 

But many of them might be just one retrenchment or one serious illness away from a tight financial situation.

FEEDING MORE MOUTHS

For low-income families, the food situation can also get precarious with each new member.

Member of Parliament (MP) Lee Bee Wah, for one, sees more families than elderly residents coming to seek help at her Meet-The-People sessions in Nee Soon South.

These families, who are often already receiving assistance like Workfare, “face difficulty in getting three meals a day especially with the addition of a newborn,” she said. “They need to buy more milk powder and diapers, which means less money to put food on the table.”

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The arrival of an infant can spiral some families into food insecurity.

Then, there are the unforeseen medical expenses and costs of transport to go see a doctor when the child falls sick. “These things can be a burden, especially when their income is not stable and when they are daily-rated workers,” said the MP.

Food Bank’s Nichol receives a number of desperate emails from young families. She recalls one in particular. “A single father with seven children got retrenched. 

He wrote, ‘My children have not eaten for three days. Can you please bring food?’

Her team promptly delivered three cartons of food. When the man’s children saw them, they fell to their knees in tears, she said. “It’s really as though they hadn’t seen food for days. We started crying too.”

Then there’s Ansar, who has three children from his first marriage and four from his second. 

The 45-year-old works as a security guard, but only part-time as the pain from an old spinal injury gets so unbearable some days that he struggles to leave his two-room rental flat. 

Each month, he makes on average S$800, and gets S$200 in cash and S$80 in NTUC FairPrice vouchers from Darul Arqam Singapore. After paying his ex-wife maintenance for their three kids,  and buying milk powder and diapers for his two-year-old, he hasn’t much left to feed six mouths.

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Ansar gets by on one meal a day, chugging water to feel full. The children meanwhile get chicken nuggets, fries, bread and spreads. They receive food support from Food From The Heart, but when desperate, Ansar also turns to groups on Facebook where members donate milk powder or diapers to families in need.

SMU’s John Donaldson however, dismisses the stereotype that having many children is what keeps families in food insecurity.

“Often it’s people with two or three children, or who have elderly frail parents,” he said. In fact, families who are working hard yet still struggle to put food on the table are “much more common” among the food-insecure, than those with a large brood.

THE SINGLE-PARENT STRUGGLE

Even so, many low-income families seem to get along fine in terms of meals, with careful management of their expenses – until they lose a breadwinner.

More than half of the moderately-to-severely food insecure individuals in the Lien Centre study were from families headed by single, divorced or widowed parents. 

Three years ago, Sam* was embroiled in an emotionally tumultuous divorce. “I suddenly had to take care of my daughter alone,” said the 38-year-old. “I was very stressed, but I kept quiet and tried to cope by myself.” 

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Sam, father of a hyperactive 9-year-old, Katie.

It affected his concentration at work as a security guard. For a couple of months, he couldn’t report for work. So he borrowed money. The debt repayments snowballed. Before he knew it, there was simply not enough money to feed his daughter and his sister who stays with them. 

Then there is Norashikin Mohd, 36, who was a housewife until her husband was jailed for several months. Then she had to start working as a school cleaner for S$600 a month, half of what her husband had made as a canteen stall operator. 

“It was quite overwhelming,” the mother of four kids, aged 7 to 14, said in Malay. ”I was worried that when the kids return from school, there’s no one to take care of them.” 

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Norashikin struggled to find time to look after and cook for her 4 children on her own.

Norashikin tried to cook each day before leaving for work – a meal, usually of rice and just one dish, to be shared by all over both lunch and dinner. As the Lien Centre study noted, food insecurity isn’t just caused by cash constraints, but also time constraints which leave little opportunity for shopping or cooking. 

Since her husband’s release recently, the couple have been working at his canteen stall and they bring home the cooked food leftovers for dinner. Whether it’s enough or not, the family of six have grown used to making do. 

THE CASE OF THE HUNGRY 8-YEAR-OLD

Learning to ‘make do’ is what many of the food insecure do out of resignation, and not knowing where to turn for help or not qualifying for it.

One afternoon last September, Fion from Keeping Hope Alive was visiting some elderly residents at a block of rental flats, when an 8-year-old girl came barreling down the corridor.

“She was in her school uniform, her hair was messy,” Fion recalled. She had some custard buns left over from lunch, which she offered the girl. 

“Her reply was, ‘How did you know I am starving?’ Her earnestness really caught my attention.” 

The girl, Katie*, lived in a one-room rental flat which was filthy and, in Fion’s view, not a suitable living environment for a child. She had bugs in her hair and no clothes other than the school uniform she was wearing. 

Fion wondered, where were her parents?

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The conditions that Fion found 'Katie' living in. The family's fridge was nearly empty.

After getting a hold of Katie’s dad on the phone, Fion eventually met him. That’s how she got to learn about Sam – the single dad still struggling with the fallout from his divorce.

He got to see his daughter only briefly in the morning before heading out for his 12-hour shift as a security guard. Constantly tired and stressed, he seemed almost defeated by the never-ending cycle of paying off his debt only to borrow more to stay afloat. 

Utilities bills went unpaid. On top of all that, he had to deal with his daughter’s hyperactive condition. “While I’m at work, her teacher keeps messaging me, ‘This is what your daughter did today, please do something about her’,” Sam said.

Under all this weight, Fion recognised his dogged determination to be a father. “He is actually very willing to look after her. But he has to work long hours, which takes up all his energy and strength,” she said. 

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Early on, Sam said, he’d tried applying for assistance and described his debt problems. But he was told his salary of S$2,000 a month before CPF deduction was “high”.

“They should really see the hours that people work. There are people who find it hard to cope. Instead they just look at the income to determine if we have a problem,” he said, frustrated.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) however, said that when Sam approached the SSO in 2015, it was over an appeal to HDB for rental assistance, and that when asked, he had "declined to apply" for financial assistance as he wanted to be self-reliant.

MSF also clarified that income "is not the sole criteria for ComCare assistance", and that the needs of applicants, such as for healthcare or food, are assessed holistically.

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The good thing is that during the school term, Katie, who is on financial assistance, gets one meal a day taken care of under the School Meals Programme. Dinner at home usually consists of rice and one dish cooked by her 56-year-old aunt. 

When asked if she got hungry, Katie paused for a long time before saying in Mandarin: “It’s not like we’re super hungry. Aunty and I just go hungry together. Or I’ll just drink water.”

THE LIFELONG IMPACT OF HUNGER

But hunger isn’t just an ache to put up with for the day – or week, or months.

That’s because the effects of food insecurity can last a lifetime, even well after life circumstances improve.

When Shanger entered polytechnic, he started to get paid for his internship and for distributing flyers, while his younger brother had his National Service allowance. So regular meals became a thing again for his family. 

Shanger no longer eats salted rice for his one meal of the day – quite the other extreme, in fact.

He now eats up to five meals a day, typically consisting of fried rice, chicken rice and fast food – all the food he never got to enjoy as a child.

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Shanger, 22, making up for all the lost meals of his childhood.

“The past impacted me a lot because now that I’m able to do what I want, I just can't let go,” he said. “I probably will get another illness, from eating too much. 

But I told my doctor off; I don’t care, because I can finally eat.

The typical diet of a person who is food insecure – processed meals high in carbohydrates and sodium, low on nutritional value – puts them at higher risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiac disease, and other chronic illnesses. 

When they get out of food insecurity, the shift to energy-dense foods can lead to high blood sugar levels. And psychological conditioning kicks in: Some like Shanger systematically overeat, because of an obsession to not waste food. 

The lean years have also left another mark on Shanger. “For four years at least, I skipped breakfast and lunch. That’s why I have gastric now,” he said. “The stomach-ache is unbearable.” 

He has to take medication for gastrointestinal disorder, which doctors tell him is for the long haul. 

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The medical cost of the years he went hungry - pills he now has to take for the long-term.

The cost of food insecurity is not just borne by individuals, but in the long run, by the country as well in the form of increased public healthcare spending.  

A study by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has linked food insecurity to higher healthcare expenditures across the US, due to the higher rates of associated chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and depression.

The study’s co-author estimates that food insecurity costs the US health system an additional US$53 billion a year. 

HUNGER AND THE CYCLE OF POVERTY

Health problems aside, food insecurity exacts another grave cost on low-income families – it could exacerbate the struggle to break out of the poverty cycle.

A child who experiences hunger might fall sick more often, take longer to recover from illness, and suffer from poorer concentration in school, noted Goh Yiting, a senior dietitian at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

The implications of all this – the inability to focus, more missed days of school – makes it much harder for the child to keep up with school work. 

A 2017 US study showed that children who experienced food insecurity in their first five years of life were more likely to be lagging behind in social, emotional and, to some degree, cognitive skills when they began kindergarten. Other research has shown that if children enter kindergarten lagging behind their peers, they tend to stay lagging. 

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Serene Loh's 8-year-old often experiences fatigue, which causes her to miss classes in school. 

Indeed, The Food Bank’s Nichol shared her experience of providing food to a primary school that ran a daily breakfast programme for students from low-income families.

By simply providing a well-balanced meal in the morning, the school saw a drastic improvement in the attendance rate, she said.

“I would like young children to eat better so that they can study and focus better. If they can do that, they really have an opportunity to break out from the poverty cycle,” she said.

As for food insecure adults, it’s been posited that when resources are scarce, it can affect the ability to make decisions or see the bigger picture.

READ: How poverty tends to trap people into making poor decisions 

Attention is focused on immediate needs, like what food to put on the table, while the stress of having to worry about this day after day can reduce bandwidth for long-term planning. 

Serene Loh, 39, can certainly identify with this.

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Serene, a mother of 4, preparing dinner. It's often her only meal for the day.

When we first met her in September 2019, Serene had a budget of just S$10 a day to cook dinner for herself, her husband and her four children. To get the best bang for her buck, she walked to three different supermarkets in the vicinity to compare prices. 

“I have to think every day, what can I cook today with the money I have? It’s very stressful,” she said. She ate only one meal a day herself, so that her children could have more food.

She wanted to get a job to supplement her husband’s income as a GrabFood rider, but didn’t have the headspace to look for one. 

Asked at the time if she would go to the family service centre to renew her application for food rations – which had expired months ago in March 2019 – Serene’s face reflected helplessness as she muttered: “I don’t know.”

“I have to take public transport there, which needs money as well. And it’s hard for me to find the time when I have to cook dinner, do housework and take care of kids at home,” she said.

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Frozen hash browns are a staple for Serene every week as they are cheap and can last the family for at least 3 days.
 

BREAKING THE CYCLE

Food From The Heart CEO Bee Hia points out that food support for parents like her doesn’t just fill the stomach; it also frees up mental bandwidth. 

“Solving the food problem allows our beneficiaries to pay more attention to other things, such as upgrading themselves, paying bills, buying an extra storybook for their children, which are important,” she said. 

Nor Ain is an example of how a little help can go a long way.

For almost a year, she and her five children had survived mainly on rice, fried eggs in soy sauce and instant noodles. 

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Nor Ain, 32, almost fell into depression, worrying how to feed her children. (Photo: Goh Chiew Tong) 

“My kids would complain, why cannot eat meat? And I would have to explain to them that I didn’t have the money,” said the 32-year-old who was in the process of a divorce, and was bunking in with a friend.

“I cried every night, thinking about what tomorrow would bring. I really felt like a useless mum.”

Things turned around after the Housing and Development Board expedited her application for a two-room rental flat, and Ain finally could focus on finding a stable job, with her social worker’s help, instead of part-time work. 

What helped take some of the stress off her shoulders was assistance of S$1,070 a month from the Social Service Office (SSO), S$300 from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), and food rations from the family service centre. 

Now working freelance for a retail start-up, she makes up to S$900 a month, thrice what she used to. “We live happily now. We had a really hard time last year, but things are better now,” she said, smiling.

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Nor Ain and her 5 kids are doing better now, with assistance. (Photo: Goh Chiew Tong) 

PROBLEMS WITH ASSISTANCE

But does every family in need find assistance easy to get? 

First of all, “we often assume that individuals or families will come forward for help,” said SUSS’ Walter Theseira. “The reality is that many households either don’t know about the welfare schemes, so they won’t come forward; or they may feel embarrassed about identifying themselves, because of the stigma associated with seeking help.”

Several families brought up the hassle of applying for aid at the SSO or bigger welfare organisations. They spoke with frustration of the need to need to fill up multiple forms, and to apply for renewal of assistance every few months with the re-submission of documentation.

“Many people feel that if they have to repeat their story over and over again for the amount of money that they’re receiving, it simply isn’t worth it,” said SMU’s John Donaldson. 

That has been Serene’s experience. Since the first she spoke to CNA Insider, she has secured ComCare assistance through the SSO. But the process, she said, was “very troublesome”.

“The officer told me I need to print my CPF statement, but my printer at home has no ink already,” she said. “I already don’t have enough money to buy food, how to buy printer ink?” (MSF has since clarified that she was not required to submit a hard-copy statement at any point, as her CPF information had been obtained via the SSO's backend screening.)

But nor has Serene renewed her food rations assistance from the family service centre, as she found the need to resubmit documents a hassle.

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Serene’s family of 6 gathers for dinner, often her only meal for the day. 

An MSF spokesperson noted that ComCare short-to-medium term assistance (SMTA) helps those in temporary financial need to take steps towards gaining employment or higher-paying jobs, thus becoming self-reliant.

“Only documents relevant to the change of circumstances are needed during the reapplication. This provides an opportunity for SSO officers to provide timely assistance.”

The spokesperson added that efforts have been made to deliver social services in a more “comprehensive, convenient and coordinated manner”. For example, ComCare SMTA clients who need help with childcare fees need not submit the same documents for assessment. 

But Serene is not the only one to feel put off from trying. Said Theseira: “In Singapore, the route to getting more assistance requires more application, more means testing, and hence more stigmatisation of the individual, compared to some other countries.”

Nichol from the Food Bank agrees: “In the US, many food pantries operate on a walk-in basis. There are no questions asked because there is already shame attached to walking into a food pantry to get help.”

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Is there stigma in asking for assistance?

CAUGHT IN LIMBO

Meanwhile, those on ComCare assistance must apply for renewal every few months. Almost all applications are processed within six weeks, with most taking two to four weeks once all necessary documents are submitted.

That’s when folks like Azhar – the 55-year-old who has been medically unfit to work for a year – might find themselves in transitory poverty. He used the last of his S$400 from ComCare and MUIS to stock up on instant noodles and cereal for the wait. 

When CNA Insider visited his apartment in September, he had three packets of instant noodles left, while his fridge was barren apart from some eggs that he cooks with the noodles. 

“The first month you can eat Maggi. The second month, you can eat. The third month?” he sighed. 

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According to MSF, Azhar applied for assistance in late August, and submitted his doctor's memo, certifying him unfit for work, in late September. A week after this, his application was approved.

SSOs do provide ComCare interim assistance for families that request urgent relief for their immediate needs. This can include those waiting for their SMTA applications to be renewed, said the MSF spokesperson. Azhar did not apply for this.

But, there are also other avenues of quick assistance, for those waiting in limbo.

MP Lee Bee Wah acknowledges the need for national social support schemes to practice “due diligence”. And while needy residents wait for their applications to be processed, she has a local welfare fund that can be tapped for immediate help, almost hassle-free.

“Sometimes before the end of the month, whatever the SSO has given them, some families have already spent,” she said. So they are given groceries and NTUC FairPrice vouchers to tide them over. 

She also helps residents write to the SSO asking for the waiting time to be shortened. Most of the time, the office accedes, she said. 

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Dr Lee Bee Wah giving out rations at her Meet-The-People session. (Photo: Goh Chiew Tong) 

MANY HELPING HANDS  

That’s not all.

In her Nee Soon South ward, the charity Food From The Heart works with her grassroots team to distribute donated bread and groceries; the Lion’s Club delivers fresh vegetables and fish; while the Indian Muslim Social Service Association helps with groceries for Muslim households. 

There’s also a community fridge that Singapore Food Rescue (and resident gardeners) helps to stock.

READ: Reduce waste by redistributing food surplus to those in need

At Kampong Glam every day, elderly rental-flat residents and other beneficiaries are served free lunch at a new food hub built for them – a collaboration between MP Denise Phua, PeaceConnect Senior Activity Centre, and Willing Hearts. Nutritious all-day breakfasts could soon follow.

Across Singapore, efforts like these are replicated with many groups stepping up to help – and they have made a definite impact in recent years.

READ: He went hungry as a teen. Now Stuff’d boss is feeding kids who can’t afford a meal

There are some 125 food support organisations with an online presence, according to the Lien Centre study, and they range from non-profits and Institutions of a Public Character (IPC), soup kitchens and Meals-On-Wheels providers, to informal ground-up groups. 

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Volunteers sorting out donations at Food From The Heart's Joo Seng Road warehouse. (Credit: Food From The Heart)

Started 16 years ago, Food From The Heart for example works with residents’ committees, senior activity centres and family service centres – people “on the ground who know who needs help,” said Bee Hia.

 “We have grown because there’s a need – more people are requesting for food,” she added.

READ: Food charities get wave of help following appeal

While it’s not clear how many of the 125 groups are actually active or regular in their outreach, they help fill the gaps that the Government’s social support network cannot cover. This is in line with MSF’s “many helping hands” approach.

“The Government can’t do everything for everyone,” said former academic Jenson Goh, who as part of a course he once taught at NUS’ Residential College 4, had looked at Singapore’s food system. 

“It looks out for those living with the bare minimum, those really living day to day. For people who fall through the cracks, the NGOs on the ground try to serve them.” 

These folks include Azhar, who while waiting for his application for assistance to be processed, has been receiving food support from Free Food For All.

And father of one, Sam, had a huge weight lifted off his shoulders when Fion and her volunteers at Keeping Hope Alive helped pay off his debts.

“We helped him so that he can focus his energy on taking care of his daughter and not be bogged down by repayments,” Fion said. 

They also gave his home a fresh coat of paint and new furniture, while the refrigerator – once stocked with half-eaten junk food – has been transformed into what Fion laughingly calls “a rich person’s fridge”. 

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Sam and Katie's fully-stocked fridge, thanks to volunteers of Keeping Hope Alive. 

The volunteers keep it stocked with cereal bars and packets of Milo for Katie’s breakfast, fruits for snacks, and other groceries which her aunt can use to cook dinner.

“It’s better than eating potato chips or gummies when Katie is very hungry,” Fion said. “We want her to have strength so that she can concentrate in school.”

But the ultimate goal for the volunteers is to help the family become self-reliant. “Sending food can’t be a long-term solution,” Fion pointed out. 

Similarly, Li Woon Churdboonchart believes it’s important for beneficiaries to feel a sense of responsibility.

She founded Volunteer Switchboard – a social enterprise which, among other things, makes monthly food deliveries to seniors in rental blocks at Jalan Kukoh. The estate’s younger residents who are in need of assistance are themselves encouraged to volunteer with the group, instead of having aid simply handed to them. 

Otherwise, Li Woon said: “You’re teaching the younger generation that it is okay that you don’t go out to work, It’s okay that you just keep taking from the public.”

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Volunteer Switchboard at work.

BUT STILL MISSING OUT 

But here’s the rub: Despite the sheer number of food charity groups out there, more than half of the households reported as severely food insecure in the Lien centre study had infrequent or no food support at all. Yet, they all lived in areas that were being served by such groups. 

What this highlights are the inefficiencies in this informal food support system, which has been growing rapidly and organically, without any kind of coordination between groups so far. The question is, can this change?

SUSS’ Walter Theseira, for one, is skeptical that food assistance should be a long-term solution to food insecurity. Something more fundamental, like a universal basic income, is needed, he believes. 

While in some countries distributing rations make sense because food insecurity is a problem of “food deserts” – whole areas where affordable food isn’t available – this is not the case in Singapore. Here, he said, “it’s a problem of people not having enough income to get the food they want”.

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A meal enough for a family of six?

The idea of a universal basic income is not without its detractors. There is, however, one other thing all agree on: Food insecurity is a problem that should concern Singapore as a society

“Ensuring no one goes hungry and has access to basic meals is fundamental,” said MP Denise Phua. “There is much to do. And I don’t believe there will ever be enough paid social workers to address the needs of a rapidly ageing society, and of those who may fall through the cracks because no one was alerted or who do not qualify due to technical reasons. 

It will take a village to piece together a strong social safety net – each of us can play our part.

Said Theseira: “Singapore is a very rich and abundant society. And if you feel that you constantly have to make very constrained decisions, there’s going to be a long-term effect on your ability to feel like a regular member of society.”

“Food insecurity isn’t just a problem of nutrition,” he added. “It’s also a problem of whether people psychologically feel like they’re part of society, and whether they fit in.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of the story stated that renewal of ComCare assistance can take an average of six weeks to process. This is incorrect. Most applications are processed within two to four weeks, and almost all within six weeks.

In Part 2 of CNA Insider's special report: With so much food assistance out there, why are good intentions falling short?

Source: cna/yv

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