Singapore – After being laid off from his part-time job as a waiter last year during the pandemic, Danny Goh has hit rock bottom.
For eight months, he struggled to find work to support his wife and four young children. The family survived on instant noodles, bread soaked in coffee and cookies, making do with the goodwill of relatives and friends in the church.
While Goh has found a new commission job enticing people to enroll in government skills and training courses, his income fluctuates between S $ 800 ($ 594) and S $ 2,800 ($ 2,078), which is barely enough for their large family.
He finds himself perpetually short of money.
To save money, the family started eating only two meals a day – simple dishes like chicken soup with rice or potatoes.
Goh often skips meals or eats once a day so that his children can have a bigger share.
Where their fridge was stocked with fresh fruit, chicken, pork and beef, soft drinks and snacks, all of this is now a luxury, and eating out is out of the question.
âIt’s a huge pay cut, and honestly it’s one of the most difficult and demoralizing times of my life. Times are really tough, âsaid the 61-year-old man who rents two-room social housing in the north of the island.
In a food haven and a wealthy city-state like Singapore, food insecurity is a phenomenon that exists mostly behind closed doors. But like elsewhere in the world, COVID-19 has hit the underprivileged hardest, typically the lowest earners in precarious jobs, who have few safety nets and insufficient wage and labor protection.
Earlier this year, a six-month study conducted by the local charity Beyond Social Services found that the median household income of families who sought help from the group fell from 1,600 Singapore dollars ($ 1,187) before the COVID-19 pandemic at just S $ 500 ($ 371).
Even more worrying, a second study, which detailed the effect of the pandemic on people renting state-owned apartments between July and December 2020, found that food insecurity was increasingly prolonged.
Residents told Beyond they sometimes face food shortages by filling up with fluids or starches, buying cheap and filling items, and making choices based on financial considerations rather than nutritional value. .
For example, some families ate only one meal a day or gave their children coffee cream in hot water because they could not afford infant formula. The report warned that the problem could escalate into a serious public health problem, with links to increased mental stress and the development of chronic health problems.
In 2019, Singapore ranked as the world’s safest nation in the World Food Security Index.
However, one in 10 Singaporeans has experienced food insecurity at least once in 12 months, a study by the Lien Center for Social Innovation at Singapore Management University reported. Of these, two in five experienced food insecurity at least once a month and many of these households did not seek food assistance, citing embarrassment, ignorance of what was available and conviction that others needed it more than themselves.
âFor an ordinary Singaporean, food is a national pastime,â said Beyond Deputy Executive Director Ranganayaki Thangavelu. âBut we might not realize how badly other people eat, how hard they have to make choices with every meal, and how food is just a necessity to support them. When they are confronted with this inequality on a daily basis, it wears them out over time.
Barely “stay afloat”
Before COVID-19, eating out was a regular affair for Joshua, 35 (not her real name), his housewife and their 6-year-old daughter.
But that all changed when the former studio technician was brutally fired due to massive cost-cutting measures during the pandemic last March. He took contract employment as a security guard, doing 12-hour night shifts four times a week, earning S $ 1,400 ($ 1,039) per month – half of his previous salary.
Nowadays, every time Joshua gets his salary, the couple sit down to figure out how to stretch their monthly food budget by 400 Singapore dollars ($ 297).
Usually that means buying frozen rather than fresh chicken, looking for value purchases and discounts, buying wholesale, and switching to cheaper brands.
The money left over is used to pay their apartment rent, utilities, phone and internet bills, and other daily expenses, with little or no savings buffer. To have fun, they take their daughter for a fast food meal once a month.
Joshua says that so far they have been able to cope, helped by rations of dried food, fruits and vegetables from a local charity.
Despite the uncertainty, he is optimistic about the situation, saying he is lucky to be still young and able to find work.
âWe manage to stay afloat. For now, that’s enough for me and my family to manage, âhe said. âThe pandemic has taught us a lesson about resilience and coping. “
Charities Al Jazeera spoke with say new sectors of society have asked for food aid because of the pandemic, including young “concerts” whose projects have dried up and even middle-income families living in the city. larger social housing or private houses. About 85% of Singaporeans live in apartment buildings subsidized by the government.
âOutside, the house looks cozy and neat, but the kids tell us their mom hasn’t eaten for two days,â said Nichol Ng, co-founder of The Food Bank Singapore. “For the food to be impacted, it means they are scratching the bottom of the pot.”
Whenever the government’s multi-ministerial COVID-19 task force announces new restrictions, the charity is inundated with requests from people writing to ask for food.
Singapore recently announced that its COVID-19 restrictions will be extended until November 21, after recording thousands of new COVID-19 cases daily.
âIt means that we have a lot of people who are very vulnerable and who cannot feed themselves. To know that they are literally a paycheck away from not eating is really scary and worrying, âNg said.
Offer a lifeline
As part of its Feed the City initiative last year, The Food Bank Singapore distributed one million meals.
Driven by the belief in giving beneficiaries âautonomy of choice and dignity,â he has also deployed more neighborhood vending machines filled with everything from frozen bento meals to drinks, snacks and rice. The group says the machines, which residents access with special cards, reduce the risk of food spoiling when left outside someone’s home in the tropical heat.
The association has also deployed other innovations, in particular a bank card program which allows beneficiaries to buy meals in food establishments.
Food from the Heart, another charity, has also seen demand increase and is now providing 10,000 rations per month, up from 5,000 before COVID-19 hit.
They also enlarged the size of their food packages after families ran out of supplies during coronavirus-related shutdowns.
“With more conversations about food insecurity, there is less stigma of people admitting to receiving food aid, especially the more able-bodied people who have lost their jobs,” said Managing Director Sim Bee Hia.
. “We expect the impact of the pandemic to continue and we just need to react and be nimble to make sure food is getting to those who need it for as long as they need it.”
Despite the proliferation of food aid initiatives and the growing volume of food aid, the Beyond report notes that efforts remain uneven and ad hoc, with some receiving too much aid and others not knowing how to get the aid from which they need.
Ng said, âThere are too many big-hearted initiatives and businesses, but they assume these are the few places that need help. As a result, there are duplicated feeding efforts in some neighborhoods, while others fall through the cracks. “
To solve this problem, her team plans to create an online database – or “food directory” – detailing the range of food aid initiatives by neighborhood. He’s also working on a food bank app where recipients can submit real-time food requests to donors, while donors share the type and amount of food they have available.
The Department of Social and Family Development (MSF) says it “recognizes” that there is food insecurity in Singapore and has introduced a series of measures to address the problem since the pandemic, including subsidies and income relief as well. only grocery and food coupons for the less well off.
These measures are in addition to the existing ComCare program, which provides social assistance to low-income individuals and families.
“In terms of food insecurity, Singapore is doing relatively well internationally, with rates still low, due to our economic and social policies and the collective efforts of the community to support those in need,” said an MSF spokesperson said in an email response to Al Jazeera.
The ministry noted that about 4.5% of Singapore’s population is facing moderate to severe food insecurity, according to the 2021 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report released by the Organization. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
This figure is lower than that of other developed economies such as the United States (8%), New Zealand (14%), Australia (12.3%) and South Korea (5.1% ), he added.
But as the pandemic rages on and businesses continue to bleed, Goh fears the prolonged economic impact on families like his.
“I never imagined the situation would get worse,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.”