Community Resilience

Q&A: Food Bank Singapore’s rapid response to COVID-19

Earlier this week, we interviewed Nichol Ng, Co-Founder of The Food Bank Singapore about their response to the COVID-19 pandemic and what actions are being taken to serve people facing hunger during this time.

Established in 2012, The Food Bank Singapore (FBSP) is Singapore’s first food bank and aims to be the predominant organization for all food donations in Singapore. Its mission is to bridge potential donors and beneficiaries. FBSP complements charities’ food donation efforts by helping organizations obtain better access to excess to more nutritious food. The food bank also looks at creative and alternative ways to maximize the use of excess food.

Q1: Nichol, how many years have you been at The Food Bank Singapore?

A: I helped co-found The Food Bank Singapore in 2012, so I have been involved with the food bank world for about the last 8 years!

Q2: Have you ever seen anything like what you’re seeing now?

A: Honestly, as a food distributor myself, we have never had a crisis on this scale before. It’s the Asian currency crisis, plus SARS, all in one. Unemployment is already starting to hit, and we are seeing the need and demand every day at the food bank level.

That being said, this is an opportunity for us to shine and work our muscles to ensure we rally all the food programs together on the ground. Every person needs to get fed and stay healthy during these times.

Q3: How are you personally handling the surge in demand?

A: I have been in constant conversation with various government agencies, including the Ministry of Health, as social distancing has kept volunteers and social workers away from the elderly away and those who need them most. We have found ourselves answering to more urgent personal calls from people in need on the ground and we are collaborating with NGOs that we have never worked with.

We have started new initiatives within the food bank to meet the new and unique needs so many are experiencing. For example, we launched Feed the City (Take-Away Edition) to deliver 50,000 meals to needy families. As an effort to bring together the community, the program involves donors that pay for the meals, food and beverage partners to provide cooked meals at special rates, and volunteers to distribute the meals to various households island wide.

Q4: Can you give us a glimpse into a “day in the life” of Nichol right now?

A: As a Mother of four kids ranging from seven years old to four months, I sleep a maximum of four hours a day, which luckily works well for someone who relies on very little sleep. This leaves me time to manage my group of companies and the two charities, which includes The Food Bank Singapore.

I am awake by 5:30 a.m. on most days. On a typical morning, before COVID-19, I would need to get my children ready for school, breakfasts eaten, lunches packed, nurse the baby and have my triple shot of espresso before 9 a.m. in order for me to get to the office on time. But since the new circuit breaker mode measures started in Singapore, causing schools and all non-essential businesses to be closed down, I am now homeschooling my children and doubling up my workload as a schoolteacher for all six subjects from Chinese to Social Studies. In addition, I am still managing my companies and running the food bank. I spend my days in various meetings and numerous phone calls with government officials and corporations as we work together to address the crisis, all while managing to squeeze in at least two to three sessions to express milk for my youngest. Work usually stops around 9 p.m. and things start to calm down at home for me to get to bed by midnight. although I typically will wake up several times throughout the night to feed the baby. Most days I will still try to squeeze in baking and cooking during the day but making breakfast with my kids on the weekend is what I look forward to most.

Q5: You mentioned in a recent survey that you’re seeing 51-60% increase in requests for emergency food assistance as a result of COVID-19. How is your organization meeting that demand?

A: We are now calling out for extra cash donations instead of asking for food as many will still head to supermarkets and I do not want our donors to have to fight or compete with panic buyers. We have a call out to large food companies to do their part and donate. We have also cut short the onboarding processes of new NGOs so that food aid can trickle down more quickly to those in need.

We have also introduced cooked and already prepared meal distribution on the fly! On day one of this, we distributed 1000 meals with a goal of ramping up to 5000 meals a day.

Q6: How are you managing no contact food distribution at Food Bank Singapore?

A: First, we are keeping the distribution to a tight knit group of volunteers for traceability. Second, the food will be left at the void decks, family service centers, and schools which may be left unmanned for collection. Lastly, we are are leaving food and bundles on people’s front doors, so they don’t even have to worry about retrieving their food.

Q7: At Food Bank Singapore, what are you proudest of right now?

A: I am so proud of the creativity and efficiency to ensure that everyone is fed. Important to note, the team has remained so passionate, positive and happy while delivering aid. I think bringing happiness is just as crucial as filling tummies at this stage. We must remember that food and sharing meals is very much a social activity.

Q8: What are you most worried about? What keeps you up at night?

A: We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of the real need on the ground. As most know, food is the litmus test to those who are really in need. If someone cannot feed themselves, it’s a reflection of the greater problem behind the real crisis.

I am sincerely concerned about the spike in unemployment that is going to happen soon and that if the country and the world cannot rally behind this crisis united, we are going to emerge weaker as a global community. Hunger just like the virus does not discriminate between race, creed, or religion.

Q9: What is the kind of help you need at this moment?

A: Money, please!

Q10: What do you want the world to know about hunger relief in Singapore amid COVID-19?

A: Being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, paired with a transparent, efficient, and generous government, I think Singapore has a good opportunity to ensure everyone is fed. As we also have many expats living here, I would also like to do a call out to all Asian food bankers to let us know if they need help in their own respective countries, as I am certain they have a far greater problem than us. In Singapore, we are united to help each other and maybe we can also be mindful of how we can also help others!

Something interesting in Singapore is that we are also using this opportunity to keep our food culture alive, especially the local street vendors, who are suffering during these social distancing times. We are using donor’s money to support these workers, in addition to buying food to ultimately be donated to those in need.

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