SINGAPORE: Long before he was in the business of feeding people, Adrian Ang was a hungry teenager, in more ways than one.
It was 1997, he was 16, and the Asian financial crisis was ravaging his parents’ business. “There was money and there was food,” Adrian Ang said. “And then suddenly, there wasn’t any.”
He was always hungry, he remembers.
At school, “your friends would go for recess, but you don’t have money to participate. So I’d just pretend to be asleep”.
As his classmates were filling their stomachs in the canteen, Adrian would cry alone in any corner he could find. While they guzzled canned drinks, he was chugging water to keep himself full.
“But water is not filling. You get very tired and weak,” he said.
His only meal for the day: Two slices of bread which he got at breakfast, but always saved until midday for fear of running out of fuel too soon. On a lucky day, there’d be kaya to go with it.
This bout of privation lasted for a year – but it had a lifelong impact on him.
“I read this phrase somewhere, and I think it holds true to me: ‘You can come out of poverty but sometimes the poverty never really leaves’,” said Adrian.
You’re always a bit scared, and you don’t want to go through that again. It helped me work harder.
Now 37, and the founder of a successful restaurant franchise, he is committing his company to helping children who experience hunger just like he did.
In April 2019, he and a team of four staff members at Stuff’d – which serves Mexican-Turkish food – launched the Free Food For Kids campaign at their Northpoint City Yishun outlet. The initiative provides one free meal a day to children in need.
It has since expanded to Jurong Point, Bugis and White Sands, feeding more than 140 children under the age of 14.
THE STIGMA IN SEEKING HELP
The team took care to make sure it would be easy for youngsters to apply for the free meals.
“They just have to reach out to us through our social media or email, and our team will contact them by phone to ask some questions,” said Chin Zheng, who is part of the programme team. Teachers and social workers also refer children under their care.
Some key indicators of whether the child is in genuine need: If they live in a rental flat, or are already under some form of government or school assistance, such as the Ministry of Education’s Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS) and School Pocket Money Fund.
But there are also those in short-term financial difficulty, whom they try to help as well.
“Some might say that people will take advantage,” Adrian added. “But if you are kinder, you can help more people. We decided to do it the kinder way.”
Keeping the programme accessible is important to Adrian as he believes there is a stigma surrounding help-seeking.
Recalling how his classmates got to know of his plight only later, he said: “They asked me why I didn’t tell them, they could have given me something (to eat). But It didn’t even cross my mind to tell people.
I felt like I had to keep it a secret, like it’s my own burden to bear - especially at that age.
This is why the beneficiaries can claim their free meal any time they want. They just have to present a physical card mailed to them, and choose any menu item they want - from kebabs to burritos and salad bowls.
This will help to “empower” the children, instead of limiting them to only certain items, said Adrian.
“It’s a very big meal and it’ll last them the entire day.”
KIDS EATING BETTER, EATING HEALTHIER
Take 12-year-old Muhammad Sufi. Like most kids he loves the school holidays – except for the fact that this is when he’s most hungry.
On schooldays, he gets two free meals a day under FAS. But during the holidays, his mother – who works as a cleaner earning S$600 a month – can only afford to give Sufi and his three siblings S$10 a day in total to spend on food.
So, cup noodles (sometimes with a dash of chilli sauce) have become a staple. “Or if I’m still hungry, I’ll share my friends’ food,” Sufi added.
He was introduced to the initiative by his social worker, and for him, a meal from Stuff’d isn’t just something to fill his stomach. He enjoys the variety he can choose from, which includes fresh vegetables and meat.
Seeing children like Sufi eat bigger and healthier meals is “humbling and heartwarming”, Chin, 28, said.
The project has opened his eyes to their plight. He spoke of heart-tugging phone conversations with the beneficiaries, their teachers and social workers, when they were assessing applications.
“He cried, I saw,” Adrian teased Chin. “Many of our team did, hearing their stories.”
Their hope is to expand Free Food For Kids to more locations so that it is accessible to more children. But can the initiative be sustainable for business in the long run?
Adrian is unfazed. “We learn as we go,” he said. “We’ll just continue until we can't.”