Our daily bread

A NEWS story on food wastage in Singapore appeared in a local English newspaper in November 2002. It reported that bakeries and fast food outlets were dumping large quantities of unsold food daily. The article piqued the interest of Austrian couple Christine and Henry Laimer, who were then living in Singapore. What a waste, they thought. Surely there could be a way to collect the unconsumed food and distribute it to the less fortunate in Singapore.

The Laimers came up with a way to gather unsold loaves from bakeries at closing time and deliver them to nearby charities. The couple from Vienna planted the seed of what is now known as Food from the Heart (FFTH), a non-profit community outreach programme with a mission to help alleviate hunger by re-channelling the otherwise wasted food to needy families in the city-state.

"There is a soft underbelly in every city in the world. Every city has its poor. Singapore has done a very good job of taking care of its people, like providing housing, so you don't see poor people on the streets. But there are definitely people whose income cannot sufficiently feed their families," says Ronald Stride, chairman of FFTH.

Founded in late 2002, FFTH started with just a handful of volunteers who picked up bread from 37 outlets owned by four bread companies for immediate delivery to 40 children and old folks' homes. Today, the organisation is helping feed thousands of food-deprived individuals.

FFTH's Bread Programme is a daily collection and distribution of unsold bread from 100 donor bakeries and hotels. Participating outlets include Grand Hyatt, Shangri-La, Ritz-Carlton Millenia, The Fullerton, Four Seasons, St Regis, InterContinental and Swissotel, chains such as Jollibean, Delifrance, Bengawan Solo, Prima, Four Loaves and outfits such as The Sandwich Shop, Bagel Factory, BreadFresh, Bread-Man and neighbourhood bakeries.

With the help of 1,700 active volunteers who are assigned regular routes (about 1,400 bread missions weekly), FFTH distributes some 28,000kg of bread a month. The volunteers are a mix of local and expatriate professionals, students, housewives, retirees and blue-collar workers — including more than 50 City Cab drivers, who either deliver the bread themselves or ferry fellow volunteers to delivery points free of charge. Using their cars, motorbikes, vans and public transportation and even on foot, the volunteers take turns to ensure that FFTH's Bread Programme reach as many underprivileged individuals as possible.

Last year, FFTH gave out the equivalent of 1,250 trolleys filled with bread — valued at S$150,000 to S$180,000 a month — that would otherwise have landed in the rubbish bin. It benefited 14,500 people from 153 welfare homes as well as needy families.

FFTH's Bread Programme is a daily collection and distribution of unsold bread from 100 donor bakeries and hotels. Photo: FFTH

Hungry pupils

Zalifah lives with her mother in a rented flat in the MacPherson Housing Estate. Her mother works as a contract cleaner in a secondary school, earning S$640 a month. The primary school pupil and her two older siblings, who are both in secondary school, could barely make it to school — and if they did, it was likely on empty stomachs.

Ming Wang is also in primary school, and his father works as a contract-based mail sorter. His older sister (in secondary school), his mother (a housewife) and he depend on his father's S$700 monthly income to meet the family's basic needs.

Zalifah's and Ming Wang's teachers say their students are diligent and responsible when it comes to their school and extra-curricular activities. Thanks to FFTH's Food Goodie Bag Programme, there is a big chance for Zalifah, Ming Wang and other impoverished pupils like them to get sustenance that will help them maintain good academic results.

Monthly food rations provided by FFTH through its Food Goodie Bag Programme are given out to pre-determined local schools. Principals and teachers distribute the bags to 50 of the most needy families. A standard food goodie bag contains 10kg of rice, two litres of cooking oil, canned food and similar staples that are enough to feed not just the student but also his or her family. Schools are adopted through corporate sponsorships, benefiting a monthly average of 4,000 individuals in 19 neighbourhood schools. Schools evaluate and recommend recipients based on household income, among other factors.

There are children who go to school hungry or who do not go to school at all because they are hungry, laments Stride. Dysfunction at home affects these children as well. Some common circumstances faced by recipients of the Food Goodie Bag include a single parent with the spouse either deceased, or in prison or drug rehab; single mothers; families with a member afflicted by costly long-term medical issues; or families whose breadwinner is unable to work because of an accident or illness.

"There's no incentive for the kids to go to school, so they drop out," says Stride, who has lived with his wife, Janet, in Singa­pore for the past 25 years. "What we're trying to do through this programme is to get the kids to come in. A lot of them are intelligent and can excel academically."

For families to benefit from this programme, parents and their children have to show up in school. The principals and teachers take advantage of the time with the parents and try to figure out how to get their children back in school, or how to improve their academic performance.

"The schools give us a report on how the kids are progressing. It's not a scientific report. Nonetheless, it is a feedback mechanism to make sure that what we're doing is having an effect," says Stride, who is also chairman of the Board of Supervisors at the Afghanistan International Bank. FFTH has added three beneficiary schools since Stride took over the leadership in November, when the Laimers moved back to Austria last year.

"At the beginning of this year, we had five schools on the waiting list. We're able to implement the programme in three of those schools. We don't want to have a school or a distribution centre that we cannot continue to sustain. We want to make sure we're at a sustainable level," says Stride.

He estimates that it takes S$33,000 to feed 50 families a year. He is grateful to corporations that commit long-term support (usually one to three years), but FFTH could use more funds to feed more families in dire straits.

Passion for the poor

Stride, 72, is no stranger to charity. He is active in local business, community and charitable organisations, serves on the boards of directors of several businesses, and has been president of the American Association of Singapore for the past five years. He has been involved in fund-raising endeavours and applies his management skills to do the same for FFTH.

In 2011, FFTH received more than S$1.2 million from public donations, fund-raising events and corporate sponsorships. It distributed food valued at more than S$3.1 million.

Passion Ball, an annual fund-raising event organised by FFTH, recently raised S$450,000. Funds from the Passion Ball, now in its ninth year, are used to purchase staples for the food goodie bags and to run FFTH's operations. Stride hopes to raise S$500,000 from the Passion Ball next year and S$700,000 from other sources to reach more indigent families next year.

"We are different from most charities. We have a whole operation; we have a warehouse, warehouse people, trucks, truck drivers," says Stride, adding that FFTH has nine full-time staff members who help manage pickups and deliveries as well as a host of other administrative tasks.

Since its inception, FFTH has expanded its efforts from just the Bread and Food Goodie Bag programmes to three ancillary efforts: Self-collection Centres, Toys from the Heart and Birthday from the Heart. Its list of supporters and donors now comprises dozens of individuals and institutions, including Audemars Piguet, Coutts Bank, NTUC, CapitaLand, SIA Engineering and the Lee Foundation.

The self-collection initiative delivers bread weekly and food rations monthly to local community centres. It coordinates with resident committees, familyservices and senior activities centres. There are 26 centres established throughout Singapore with 4,200 individuals benefiting from them. Food items handed out include bread and non-perishable food items such as canned goods, rice, cooking oil, instant noodles and Milo.

Toys from the Heart, started in 2008, is an annual carnival-like event held during school holidays and where used toys are collected from donor schools and companies, and handed to 4,000 disadvantaged students and children in neighbourhood schools.

Birthday from the Heart hosts monthly birthday bashes held at six pre-selected welfare homes for children and the elderly. Corporate sponsors, volunteers and FFTH bring gifts to celebrants, some 500 children and elderly every month.

"We'll definitely add more schools and distribution centres," says Stride, a New Yorker. "We're also thinking about offshoots that reach out to other areas. We either experiment with what we're currently doing or we can do another ancillary programme that fits into our business model, using current resources in Singapore."

FFTH is now running on a computerised system to track collections and deliveries. Developed and donated by Fujitsu Asia, the system costs S$100,000 and records SMS messages from volunteers indicating the amount of bread collected. The data gathered is transmitted to FFTH's warehouses for more efficient and faster distribution.

Still, the biggest challenge is to get the privileged ones to understand that there are needy people in Singapore. Most people, especially foreigners, who make up a large part of supporters, will be surprised to know that. FFTH's volunteers will be the first to tell you where to find them — some are their own neighbours, who live in the heartland.

"Our volunteers are bursting with pride because they know who the hungry people are in their communities, and they're doing something to help these people. It gives them a lot of satisfaction," says Stride.

As Singapore revels in its reputation as one of Asia's food havens, somewhere in the city are destitute families who find succour in every bite of unsold bread.

Food from the Heart

161B Goldhill Centre, 51 Thomson Road, Singapore 307614

Tel: 6259 7176

Website: www.foodheart.org

For online donations: www.sggives.org/ffth

Singapore-based Debbie Reyes-Coloma is a freelance feature and lifestyle writer for various publications in the region. This story first appeared in

The Edge Singapore weekly edition of Nov 5-11, 2012.

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