Tue. Dec 7th, 2021

Singapore After being released during the pandemic of his part-time job as a waiter last year, Danny Goh has reached the bottom.

For eight months he struggled to find work to support his wife and four young children. The family survived on instant noodles, bread dipped in coffee and cookies, and got by on the goodwill of family and church friends.

While Goh got a new commission-based job to sign people up for upgrading government skills and training courses, his income ranged from $ 800 ($ 594) to $ 2,800 ($ 2,078), which is barely enough for their large family.

He constantly finds himself cash.

To save money, the family started eating only two meals a day – simple dishes such as chicken soup with rice or potatoes.

Goh often skips meals or eats once a day so that his children can have a larger share.

Where their fridge used to be filled with fresh fruit, chicken, pork and beef, soft drinks and snacks, it’s all now a luxury, and dining out is out of the question.

“It’s a big pay cut, and honestly it’s one of the hardest and most demoralizing periods of my life. Times are really hard, ”says the 61-year-old who rents a two-room apartment for public housing in the northern part of the island.

Singapore is known for its food, and the people of the rich city-state are known for their love for it. Experts say those who struggle are often too ashamed to tell anyone [File: Wallace Woon/EPA]

In a food paradise and rich city-state like Singapore, food insecurity is a phenomenon that exists mainly behind closed doors. But as elsewhere in the world, COVID-19 has hit the disadvantaged hardest, typically the lowest earners in insecure jobs, which have few safety nets and inadequate wage and labor protection.

Earlier this year, a six-month study by local charity Beyond Social Services found that the median household income of families seeking the group’s help ranged from $ 1,600 ($ 1,187) before the COVID-19 pandemic to just 500 Singapore dollars ($ 371). ).

More worryingly, a second study, which outlined the impact of the pandemic on people renting state-owned apartments between July and December 2020, found that food insecurity is increasingly being extended.

Residents told Beyond that they sometimes dealt with the shortage of food by filling themselves with liquids or starches, buying cheap and filling items and making choices based on financial considerations rather than nutritional value.

For example, some families eat only one meal a day or give their children coffee creamer in hot water because they can not afford formula milk. The report warned that the issue could escalate to a serious public health issue, with links to increased mental stress and the development of chronic health conditions.

In 2019, Singapore was ranked as the world’s most food safe nation in the Global Food Security Index.

However, one in 10 Singapore residents has experienced food insecurity at least once over 12 months, a study by Singapore Management University’s Lien Center for Social Innovation reported. Of these, two out of every five experienced food insecurity at least once a month and many of these households did not seek food support, citing embarrassment, unaware of what was available and the belief that others needed it more than themselves.

“For ordinary Singapore, food is a national pastime,” said Ranganayaki Thangavelu, deputy executive director of Beyond. “But we may not realize how poorly others eat, how they have to make difficult choices for every meal, and how food is just a necessity to sustain them. When confronted with this inequality on a daily basis, it wears them down over time. ”

Barely ‘stay afloat’

Before COVID-19, eating out was a regular affair for 35-year-old Joshua (not his real name), his homemaker wife, and their 6-year-old daughter.

But that all changed when the former studio technician was suddenly let go due to massive cost-cutting measures during the pandemic last March. He took a contract job as a security guard, clocked 12-hour night shifts four times a week and earned 1,400 Singapore dollars ($ 1,039) a month – half his previous salary.

Food for the Heart volunteers deliver supplies to a family in Singapore [Courtesy of Food from the Heart]

Nowadays, every time Joshua gets his salary, the couple sits down to figure out how to stretch their monthly food budget of 400 Singapore dollars ($ 297).

Usually it means buying frozen chicken rather than fresh, looking for value-added purchases and discounts, buying in bulk and switching to cheaper brands.

The remaining money goes to paying rent for their apartment, utilities, telephone and internet bills and other day-to-day expenses, with little or no buffer of savings. For a treat, they take their daughter out for a fast food meal once a month.

Joshua says so far they have been able to get by, helped by rations of dried food, fruits and vegetables from a local charity.

Despite the uncertainty, he is gifted about the situation and says he is happy that he is still young and can get a job.

“We manage to keep our heads above water. “For now, it is enough for me and my family to drive,” he said. “The pandemic taught us a lesson about resilience and fighting on.”

Al Jazeera’s charities said new sectors of society were seeking food aid due to the pandemic, including younger “gig” workers whose projects have dried up and even middle-income families living in larger public housing apartments or private homes. About 85 percent of Singaporeans live in state-subsidized apartment blocks.

“On the outside, the house looks soft and polished, but then the children tell us that their mother did not eat for two days,” said The Food Bank Singapore co-founder Nichol Ng. “For the food to be touched, it means they scrape the very bottom of the pot.”

Every time the government’s multi-ministry task force dealing with COVID-19 announces new restrictions, the charity is flooded with requests from people who sign up to ask for food.

Singapore recently announced that its COVID-19 restrictions will be extended until November 21, after thousands of new COVID-19 cases were registered daily.

“This means we have many people who are very vulnerable and cannot feed themselves. “Knowing they are literally a paycheck away from not eating, it’s really scary and worrying,” Ng said.

Present a lifeline

Under its Feed the City initiative last year, The Food Bank Singapore distributed one million meals.

Driven by a belief in giving beneficiaries the “autonomy of choice and dignity,” it also introduced more neighborhood vending machines with anything from frozen bento meals to drinks, snacks and rice. The group says the machines, which residents access with special cards, reduce the risk of the food going bad when left outside someone’s home in the tropical heat.

The charity has also introduced other innovations, including a bank card program that enables beneficiaries to redeem meals from food establishments.

Food from the Heart, another charity, has also increased demand and now delivers 10,000 ration packs a month compared to 5,000 before COVID-19 hit.

Vending machines have been installed at some apartment blocks to make it easier for residents to access food supplies [Courtesy of The Food Bank Singapore]

They also increased the size of their food parcels after families ran out of supplies during coronavirus-related restrictions.

“With more conversations about food insecurity, there is less stigma from people acknowledging that they are getting food support, especially those who are more competent who have lost a job,” says CEO.

. “We expect the pandemic’s impact to be prolonged and we just have to respond and be vigilant to make sure we keep the food going for those who need it for as long as they need it.”

Despite the proliferation of food aid initiatives and the rising volume of food aid, the Beyond report notes that efforts remain patchy and ad hoc, with some receiving too much assistance and others not knowing how to get the help they need. do not have.

Ng said: “There are too many land initiatives and corporations with big hearts, but they assume it is these few places that need help. As a result, there are duplicate food attempts in some neighborhoods, while others fall through the cracks. ”

To solve this, her team plans to create an online database – or ‘nutrition guide’ – that outlines the range of food aid initiatives by neighborhood. It is also working on a food bank application where beneficiaries can submit real-time food requests to donors, while donors share the type and amount of food they have on hand.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) says it “recognizes” that there is food insecurity in Singapore and has put in place a series of measures to address the issue since the pandemic, including allowances and income relief as well as groceries and food vouchers for the less fortunate .

These measures come on top of the existing ComCare program, which provides social assistance to low-income individuals and families.

“In terms of food insecurity, Singapore has performed relatively well internationally, with rates remaining consistently low, due to our economic and social policies and collective community efforts to support the needy,” an MSF spokesman said in an email to Al Jazeera said.

The ministry noted that about 4.5 percent of Singapore’s population is estimated to face moderate to severe food insecurity, according to the 2021 report on the state of food security and nutrition in the world by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. organization (FAO) has been published.

Danny Goh’s job as a waiter disappeared with the coronavirus pandemic. He says his family survived on the goodwill of family and friends [Toh Ee Ming/Al Jazeera]

It was lower than in other developed economies such as the United States (8 percent), New Zealand (14 percent), Australia (12.3 percent) and South Korea (5.1 percent), it added.

But while the pandemic continues to rage and businesses continue to flourish, Goh fears the long-term economic impact on families like his.

“I never thought the situation would get worse,” he said. “There seems to be no end in sight.”

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