Community Resilience

How Food Banks Connect Women to Economic Opportunities

It’s not news that women and girls are disproportionately affected by hunger. And it’s not news that food insecurity faced by women and girls is directly tied to their lack of economic opportunities. What may be new to some, however, is the role that food banks play in connecting the dots between these sets of intersecting issues. On International Women’s Day, we are taking the opportunity to highlight food bank programs that provide more than just food to women.

Turning surplus resources into economic opportunities

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Kechara Soup Kitchen (KSK) serves people in Malaysia’s lowest income bracket, particularly single and young mothers. Beyond distributing hot meals and food parcels, KSK provides services like medical screenings and helps people apply for welfare assistance and jobs.

Core to KSK’s mission is recovering and repurposing surplus food and resources. When the food bank began receiving large donations of fabric and clothes from the community, they recognized an opportunity. “It just so happened that we had some volunteers with experience in sewing,” said Justin Cheah, KSK’s director of operations. “We thought maybe they should teach some of the recipients of our food bank how to create something with the fabric, so it would not end up in landfills and so the [women we serve] can develop a skill and earn some income.”

What started simply as a way to make use of surplus resources has since developed into KSK’s Empowerment Program, which teaches women how to sew and bake so they can earn income to support themselves and their families.

How the program works

KSK hosts sewing and baking training throughout the year and women typically participate in the program for a minimum of two years. They learn how to make pouches, handbags, rugs, quilts, and more. Prior to the pandemic, products were sold at bazaars, offices, and retail stores; currently, they are available for purchase online. Learning to sew can take months, so KSK launched a less time-intensive training program in baking since it’s a skill that can be picked up more quickly. Trainees prepare cookies for special events and holidays. And because baked goods sell faster, the women and their families can earn money more quickly.

Empowerment Program participants can earn up to 1,000 ringgit per month, equivalent to up to eight months of rent in Kuala Lumpur’s affordable housing units or three months of groceries. This income has enabled women to support their families in previously unimaginable ways. For example, participants have been able to purchase tablets so their children could continue to attend school when it went remote during the pandemic.

Ultimately, KSK hopes this program will help women to start their own businesses or secure other skill-based jobs. “Once we see that [the women’s] lifestyle is getting better and that they have a more stabilized income, they may not need to participate in the program or even need food assistance from us anymore, said Cheah. “Some say [when the food distribution date arrives], Thank you, we don’t need the food anymore. Please save the food for another family. I’m doing very well [through] this program.’

Food banks across the Network equip women

KSK is not the only food bank in the Network to support initiatives that provide economic opportunities for women. Food For All Africa in Ghana provides vocational training in food production and hospitality, with the goal of securing employment for single mothers and youth. And Banco de Alimentos Uruguay provides nutrition education to support job assistance programs for mothers in vulnerable situations.

From Malaysia to Uruguay to Ghana, food banks are critical locally based organizations that alleviate hunger for women and girls while addressing systemic issues like unemployment and lack of economic opportunities. On International Women’s Day—and every day—let’s celebrate these crucial community-based programs that serve women and girls around the world.

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