Inspiring Heroes: Five Bukit Batok East Coffeeshops Working Together to Feed Less Fortunate Families With the “Belanja-A-Meal” Initiative

Have you ever wondered how less fortunate residents in our community get what they need?

Simple things that we tend to take for granted, such as food, groceries, toiletries, and even daily necessities, are a struggle when you’re not earning a salary, or if you don’t have children, parents, or relatives who will support you.

That’s why Belanja-A-Meal came about—to feed those in need in the Bukit Batok East community.

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This touching initiative was spearheaded by Bukit Batok East Zone 2 Residents’ Committee (RC) and De Tian Coffee House in January 2018.

How does it work? RCs involved in this initiative will issue Belanja-A-Meal cards to less fortunate residents within the zone. These cards last a month and entitle these residents to free meals and/or drinks at a specific coffeeshop near them.

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When a beneficiary wants to redeem a meal or drink, it’s as simple as approaching any stall within the coffeeshop, grabbing a magnet off its Belanja-A-Meal board, and redeeming their free meal or drink directly at the stall.

Most of these meals cost S$3 or S$3.50 and have already been paid for by anonymous diners or even the shopkeepers themselves, so as long as there’s a magnet on the board, that means there is a free meal for somebody out there who needs it.

If you’d like to donate a meal, you can pay S$3 or S$3.50 (depending on the coffeeshop) directly at any of the participating stalls in the coffeeshop.

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If you’re wondering which dishes can be redeemed by the beneficiaries, you might be slightly disappointed to know that not all dishes are available. Most stalls identify a handful of dishes and cap it at a certain price, but that’s because it makes the process more streamlined and easier to execute.

Sometimes the stall owners would either top up in terms the choice of food items or donate magnets to keep the programme going for the beneficiaries.

Imagine having different amounts donated to the stall or different beneficiaries requesting a variety of food. It’ll be hard to track, and not to mention, the RC and the shopkeepers have to be accountable to the donors and public too.

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All five participating coffeeshops operate on slightly different terms—some have a shared whiteboard located near the drinks stall, while others have individual whiteboards at each stall.

We decided to visit each of the five coffeeshops to find out what they had to offer.

1. BB289 Food House (289H Bukit Batok Street 25)

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The first coffeeshop we visited was BB289 Food House at 289H Bukit Batok Street 25.

It has a total of eight stalls, of which six are participating in the Belanja-A-Meal programme: the cai fan stall, economic bee hoon stall, fishball noodle stall, roasted delights, zi char stall, and the drinks stall.

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I spoke to Mr Koh Hock Soon, the owner of the roasted delights stall, who has been operating in the coffeeshop for 13 years, but eagerly agreed to take part in the Belanja-A-Meal initiative when it first started.

“There are a lot of poor elderly in the neighbourhood who cannot afford to buy a meal. Even before this programme came about, we’d help them out with a meal or two,” he shared. “When the Belanja-A-Meal initiative first started, I actually donated 50 magnets. To us, donating is a small issue. Being able to help these poor people is what matters.”

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In fact, when I visited the stall, there were no magnets on Mr Koh’s white board. I sheepishly asked Mr Koh if he could put up some magnets just for show, and he whipped out 15 magnets in a flash.

After I snapped a couple of pictures, I told Mr Koh he could take the magnets down. He replied: “Haiiiiyah, it’s okay, just leave it up there. Treat it like a donation.”

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I tried Mr Koh’s Char Siew Roasted Pork Noodle (S$3), and was really surprised by how big the portions were. For just S$3, I got a large serving of egg noodles, char siew slices, roasted pork, vegetables, and a bowl of soup.

I couldn’t help but think to myself, this generous plate of noodles would really go a long way in feeding someone who needs it.

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The char siew was sweet and juicy, and I loved pairing it with the crispy roasted pork. Plus, the springy egg noodles had soaked up the smokiness from the meats and sauce, and I couldn’t help but slurp it all up.

Kudos to Mr Koh and the rest of the tenants at BB289 Food House for always looking out for those in need and the elderly in their community.

2. De Tian Coffee House (265 Bukit Batok East Avenue 4)

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This is where it all began—De Tian Coffee House at 265 Bukit Batok East Avenue 4. It has eight food stalls—all of which are participating in the Belanja-A-Meal initiative—and one drink stall.

Beneficiaries staying in the area can look forward to S$3.50 meals such as fishball noodles, Western food, prawn noodles, economic bee hoon, Indian food, roasted meat dishes, and even zi char food.

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When I spoke with De Tian Coffee House’s owner, Mr Glenn Koh, he explained that the coffeeshop sees about 10 meal redemptions a day. “Whatever it is, we’ll always make sure there are enough magnets on the board,” he said.

He also shared that when the project first took off, he saw an influx of public donations. “A year in, the public donations have tapered off and it’s the other way around now—the coffeeshop and stall owners are the ones donating constantly to the initiative,” he said.

“This is because we believe so much in the programme and that’s why we need to make sure there’s always enough meals to provide for the needy.”

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I tried the Bak Chor Mee (S$3.50) from the fishball noodles stall. It came with a dash of chilli sauce and a sprinkle of spring onions, and was accompanied by a piping hot bowl of fishball soup.

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I absolutely loved the fishball soup. It was comforting and soothing, with just the right amount of seasoning so it was light but not bland. It came with a good amount of springy fishballs, meat slices, and taupok—perfect for sipping alongside an indulgent bowl of bak chor mee.

3. Badaling Coffee Shop (233 Bukit Batok East Ave 3)

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There are a total of eight stalls at Badaling Coffee Shop at 233 Bukit Batok East Ave 3, of which seven are part of the Belanja-A-Meal initiative.

Beneficiaries can take their pick from dishes such as cai fan, Muslim food, fishball noodles and zi char.

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I decided to visit the cai fan shop, which gave beneficiaries the choice of two vegetable ingredients and one meat ingredient (S$3) for their meal.

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I picked sweet and sour pork, potatoes, and stir-fried kai lan, a classic cai fan combination. As I was eating the meal, it suddenly struck me that cai fan is one of those stalls we tend to take for granted.

There’s a multitude of ingredients and you can take your pick, but it’s easy to forget that even though a dish like that might cost S$3, the reality is that some people in our community simply cannot afford it.

Somehow, my plate of cai fan suddenly became all the more precious because I realised this would’ve been a full meal to somebody else who didn’t have the means to keep their bellies full.

4. Hao Kou Wei (272 Bukit Batok East Avenue 4)

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Nestled along 272 Bukit Batok East Ave 4 is Hao Kou Wei, a narrow coffeeshop with ten stalls, six of which are part of the Belanja-A-Meal initiative.

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I sat down with Mr and Mrs Choo, who happened to be eating their lunch. They are beneficiaries of the Belanja-A-Meal programme and visit the coffeeshop often.

“My wife, who is 67-years-old this year, suffered a stroke 10 years ago. I quit my job to take care of her because I was so scared she’d fall if I wasn’t around, so we ended up having no income and relying entirely on government welfare,” he shared. “We don’t have children so it’s just the two of us, so the Belanja-A-Meal programme really helped us because it gave us a free meal a day.”

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When I asked Mr Choo what he and his wife typically eat from this coffeeshop, he recommended the vegetarian stall, which has been around for 20 years.

Beneficiaries can pick up to three ingredients, and they can top their rice or bee hoon up with vegetarian curry.

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“To be very frank, we didn’t hop onto the programme immediately when it first came out,” admitted Mr Liew Wei, the owner of the vegetarian stall. “But after much encouragement from the RC, we decided to join the initiative, and I’m really heartened to see that it’s helped to feed so many poor people.”

5. Toh Guan Food & Drinks Centre (282A Toh Guan Road)

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The last of the five coffeeshops, Toh Guan Food & Drinks Centre, is located across the PIE from Bukit Batok at 282A Toh Guan Road. It offers a variety of cuisine, such as ramen, Thai food, zi char, Muslim food, roasted delights, as well as ban mian and other noodle dishes.

When I visited the coffeeshop on a regular weekday afternoon, I saw that not many shops were open. Despite that, I decided to try its zi char to see how it’d fare, especially since beneficiaries can also redeem it for their free meal.

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I got the Hor Fun (S$3.50) from Le Xiang Wei Seafood and was surprised to note that its original price on the menu was S$4.

After some probing, I found out that the stall absorbs the price difference of S$0.50, so beneficiaries can still enjoy the same plate of hor fun or hokkien mee as all of us.

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Sporting a generous amount of seafood, meat, and vegetables, Le Xiang Wei Seafood’s hor fun was one of the better ones I’ve tasted. It was smoky and delicious, with a strong wok hei taste, and each strand of hor fun was coated in a thick egg-based gravy.

I loved everything on this dish—the prawns were springy and fresh, the stall was generous with the meat slices, and the portions were so big that I’m pretty sure I’d have problems finishing it on an empty stomach.

It’s true that there are people in Singapore that need help. That’s where we come in—to extend a helping hand, be it to offer a seat on the train, to donate second-hand clothing, or in this case, to donate S$3 or S$3.50 so that somebody else would be able to fill their bellies.

“That’s what a neighbourhood coffeeshop is for—to feed our residents,” said Mr Glenn Koh, owner of De Tian Coffee House. “We plan to carry on as long as we operate here, because the initiative doesn’t just help these less fortunate residents for one day, but for one whole year. They know they won’t go hungry and that’s all that really matters.”