SG United has become a buzzword during this Covid-19 pandemic as the government urges Singaporeans to stay united as one people and remain resilient in the face of adversity.
Encouragingly, many Singaporeans have displayed behaviours of altruism, compassion and empathy during these challenging times.
For married couple Derek Ong and Janet Lee, who are founders of local cleaning firm Wizard Home Services P/L, they started up a non-profit initiative called Food Rescue Sengkang in May 2019.
We were rescuing food to reduce food waste and the volume was way too much for us to consume at home, and we decided to share the rescue with (our) neighbours.
It was just a very simple thought that we could help the neighbours save some money on grocery bills and put the food to good use. Being in a new estate, we know that there are a lot of sandwich class here that falls through the cracks, and we decided that we could come in and help them in our little ways to help them save money.– Janet Lee, co-founder of Food Rescue Sengkang
Feed The People, Not Bins
Their main mission is to reduce food waste — hence their tagline “feed the people, not bins.”
Food waste poses a serious global problem and they hope to educate people that “not all ugly fruits and vegetables are destined for the bins.”
What they do is to go around restaurants, bakeries and wholesalers in Singapore to ‘rescue’ unwanted food and give them a new lease of life by donating them to those who need it.
Janet stressed that not all vendors give them blemished food items. In fact, there are many vendors who donate quality items, which they are very thankful for.
“Some vendors [have been] extremely kind to us and will reserve items that are in perfect condition just so that we have enough [supply] to distribute,” she said, adding that these items are in sellable condition, which can profit them.
She refuses to disclose names of the participating vendors so as to not affect their businesses, but revealed that bakeries such as BreadLine and BreadCode have been supporting them since day one.
“I work closely with the very generous lady boss. She is the only bakery [owner who] did not turn us away after we knocked on at least 30 to 40 doors,” she added.
In contrast to the name Food Rescue Sengkang, this initiative does not only benefit Sengkang residents.
“We lived in Sengkang and started our distribution from [there], hence the name,” explained Janet.
“We welcome people from all around Singapore and do not limit just Sengkang residents to collect [the food].”
When asked how many people have benefited from this initiative so far, Janet said that they have “lost count” of the numbers.
We started with five to 10 neighbours who collect from us regularly, but now it is in excess of 150 neighbours — not taking into consideration fridge restock programmes islandwide as well as shelters, soup kitchens and dormitories requests.– Janet Lee, co-founder of Food Rescue Sengkang
It is also upsetting to know that despite the good intentions of this initiative, the duo have encountered people who take advantage of their programme.
“After all, it is free food — who doesn’t love free food right?” she quipped.
“Corrective actions have been taken, and we move on [from it]. When we give, we don’t unless it is excessive and leave it to their integrity. Ultimately, our purpose is to reduce food waste, so if they are happy to collect, we are happy to give.”
Increased Demand During COVID-19
With the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak in Singapore, Food Rescue Sengkang have been ramping up their rescues during this period.
Previously, they conducted their rescue efforts only when the time permits. However, they started noticing that the “crowd is getting bigger and people are getting more desperate for food”, so they had no choice but to dedicate more time on this.
In fact, rescuing food has become a daily routine for them during this period which caused them to suffer from lack of sleep and personal time. Though tiring, the couple optimistically sees these rescue missions as a form of exercise.
Operationally, Food Rescue Sengkang also face plenty of challenges. Firstly, the lack of transport — they do not have commercial vehicles and often rely on a third-party to help them transport the goods.
Secondly, being self-funded has been financially taxing for the couple since they fund the operation out of their own pockets.
“Our petrol bills have tripled since the start of COVID-19, with us [driving] around the island to rescue food,” lamented Janet.
We are also not a charity organisation but a ground-up initiative. There are a lot of obstacles for us, but we do what we can and tackle each one when we face it.
If no one is taking the initiative to start something, then nothing will ever be done. I believe when we do right, help will be rendered to us eventually.– Janet Lee, co-founder of Food Rescue Sengkang
Despite the challenges, the couple remain grateful for the opportunity to help the community during this time of need.
For instance, she has encountered a few beneficiaries with very big family sizes. One particular family has 12 children and a sole breadwinner, and she was happy to be able to ease their financial burden.
“In Singapore today, having two or three children is a challenge in itself — let alone six, seven or even 12 children. We can imagine how difficult it is for them,” said Janet.
By giving away food to the community, Food Rescue Sengkang also inadvertently helps them to save on grocery bills so they can put their money to other use.
Beyond ‘rescuing’ food, the couple has also been giving away 10 x $100 Sheng Siong supermarket voucher to anyone who needs — no strings attached.
Fruits and vegetables aside, the reality is that people still need sundries or milk powder if they have little ones at home, and we understand that. This is why we decided to give vouchers to help those who need it.
We give out from our pockets as we consider ourselves blessed and in a position to help others. $100 may not mean a lot to many, but they could mean a lot to others.– Janet Lee, co-founder of Food Rescue Sengkang
Janet added that there is no ‘eligibility criteria’ to receive these vouchers. Those in need can simply message them to explain why they need the vouchers, and provide a brief background on themselves and their family so the couple can assess their needs.
So far, they have received a “tremendous” response for the vouchers. They were very touched when a beneficiary of their vouchers programme became a regular volunteer.
It was also heartwarming for them to see their neighbour stepping up to purchase more vouchers for them to give away.
So what’s next for Food Rescue Sengkang now?
Thanks to all the media coverage that they have received, more people have become aware of their initiative and they now receive more requests.
However, truth be told, they never planned for this initiative to grow big.
To cope with the demand, they have now set up another two teams of volunteers: one in charge of rental flats, and another for bread rescue.
“We do plan to expand on this if we could, but we will need plenty of support from donors. Bread is very much in demand as many beneficiaries consume bread [but] our current source can only supply so much,” said Janet.
“I strongly urge all bakeries not to dump their unsold bread every evening but to contact us so we could use it to feed the community. In addition, I also urge all town councils to support the community fridge programme as it is really beneficial to the residents and help foster the ‘kampung’ spirit. Only when we learn to share, do we learn to love.”
Featured Image Credit: Food Rescue Sengkang