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Intervention in fried rice paradise

SINGAPORE (Mar 29): Few go hungry in food haven Singapore but there is still a segment of the population who are not food secure because of income or health issues that make preparing or buying nutritious meals difficult.

One such family is Nur Ain Binte Hamid’s who don’t always eat according to nutritional recommendations. Their meals are heavy on carbohydrates that help meet calorie counts and keep stomachs full, but may not be as nutritious as when there is more meat and vegetables.

Ain, 30, lives in a household of seven in a three-bedroom HDB flat. She is the sole caregiver for her four children, aged 3, 6, 9, and 10, an older sister, 45, with chronic health conditions and uses a mobility scooter, and a younger brother, 32, with intellectual disabilities.

The family survives on a monthly CPF payout of $450 to the older sister, another $500 the brother gets from public assistance.

Due to time constraints, she cooks just once a day in the late morning. Ain typically prepares one big dish with four cups of rice that will feed the seven of them for lunch and dinner. She prepares dishes using whatever groceries her elder sister buys every two weeks — usually chicken, chicken stock, kailan, grapes and apples — and monthly food rations from charity Food from the Heart’s School Goodie Bag programme.

But on March 20, Food from the Heart did something novel. The charity held a fresh produce market at Teck Ghee Community Centre for 500 families to shop at. Each family could pick 12 packages of fresh food including chicken, seabass, prawns, all sorts of vegetables, fruits and tofu. This is a departure from the usual distribution of non-perishable foods such as rice, cooking oil and biscuits.

Main image: Recognising that the food charity sector in Singapore may not always distribute nutritious food, Food from the Heart has launched a fresh produce pop-up where more than 500 got to pick vegetables, poultry, seafood and fruits. Photo: Food from the Heart

Above: Ain's butter curry chicken (left) and her healthier version with lady fingers and potatoes, thanks to Food from the Heart

Ain chose some chicken, prawns, sea bass, dragonfruit, kiwis, kailan, corn and tofu. “I think this can last a week,” she says. The assortment of food gives her room to try out new recipes, hopefully make more nutritious dishes for her young children. “We also seldom take dragonfruit, usually just grapes and apples.”

If Ain had more money for groceries, she says she would like to buy healthier food, add some beef to the mix, and maybe cook dishes that are not as spicy.

Last October, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Singapore first out of 113 countries in its Global Food Security Index, citing affordability as the country's strength.

But in a survey of 236 households published by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation at the Singapore Management University last August, 51% faced moderate to severe food insecurity — defined by researchers as not having or not being confident of having access to sufficient and nutritious food for a healthy lifestyle.

“If you only have a certain budget for items, the first thing that you want to satisfy are calories, and that usually is lots of rice. Then you end up with meat, if you can afford it, but usually it’s vegetables first,” says Paul Teng, a professor looking at non-traditional security issues such as food security at the Nanyang Technological University’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

How else can Singapore increase its food security? And what more can be done to help those most vulnerable to food price hikes? Login here to read "Insecure about food in a food paradise" in this week's issue of The Edge Singapore (Issue 875, week of Apr 1) which is on sale now or subscribe here