When the DORSCON level was ramped up to ‘Orange’ in February 2020, Singaporeans were sent into a frenzy with the first wave of panic buying. A second wave came shortly after, only a few days back when Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong announced the Circuit Breakers which technically serves as a restriction order, limiting citizens to the comforts of our homes.
With the impact on our daily lives and growing anxiety over the country’s economic outlook admits the COVID-19 pandemic, there is another group of Singaporeans in the society that we might have overlooked—they are the less fortunate.
Since the outbreak, local food charities have not only witnessed a drastic drop in donations and sponsorships, organisations that relied heavily on volunteers are also facing manpower issues with the cancellation of the Community Involvement Programmes and volunteers backing out.
“We have seen a significant shortfall in volunteers. Not only that, but source of food is also an issue we face as Singaporeans are now limited to the number of items they can purchase,” said Ms Sim Bee Hia, Chief Executive of Food From The Heart.
A charity organisation with IPC (Institutions of Public Character) status, Food From The Heart feeds those in need through their food distribution programme with the aim of alleviating hunger and brightening the lives of the less fortunate. Just in the year 2019 alone, the organisation had 251 food distribution points supporting 44,600 needy individuals with the distribution of 58,871 food packs worth S$6.2million.
With sponsors and donors tightening their belts to keep their own business afloat, Food From The Heart has seen donations drop by more than 50% within the last two to three months. “It’s either we lose it (donations), or it’s cut by half,” Ms Sim added.
Large charity organisations aside, smaller food charities are also feeling the impact at a heightened state as many of them rely solely on public funds to feed their beneficiaries. “We might need to look into the government’s support to work out a solution as we cannot say ‘no’ to those whom we are currently serving. Sooner or later, our existing resources will dwindle. What happens after that? We hope to work out a solution or get some support in our comfort so that we can continue to do what we do,” commented Mr Nizar Mohd Shariff, Founder of Free Food For All, a charity organisation delivering an average of 500 free meals daily to low-income families around Singapore.
Another unprecedented challenge that the rapid evolution of the COVID-19 situation has posed to welfare organisations is the surge in beneficiaries. “We have been receiving more requests for help from our community partners as they are seeing an increase in the number of Singaporeans eligible for the welfare scheme. But with the drop in volunteers as well as donations, we are also facing some difficulties behind the scenes,” Ms Sim explained.
Consequently, food charities like Food From The Heart and Free Food For All have resulted in tapping into their reserves to ensure that the commitment to their beneficiaries continues. “It is important to exude calmness at this point of time so that our beneficiaries will not worry about not getting a food pack next month. It’s not just about the food; it’s more about maintaining normality in abnormal times,” Ms Sim said with a smile.
When asked about how the organisation is dealing with the upsurge in the request for food packs, Ms Sim explained that it is difficult for the centre to agree to all the requests from their community partners. With their priority to feed their existing beneficiaries, the same number of food packs will be delivered for distribution but it will ultimately be up to the distribution centres to allocate the packs to those whom they deem requires it more urgently.
“Of course we would love to say ‘yes’ to all them, but the existing situation makes it difficult to do so. Furthermore, we don’t want to reduce the existing number of items in our food pack just to accommodate more beneficiaries. If the items reduce from eight to six, it will only install panic to the end-receivers.”
Numbers of volunteers have dropped drastically since the introduction of social distancing. With the ‘Circuit Breakers’ in place, food charities are also facing the dire manpower situation to help send their food supplies out to the needy. “We have scaled down on mass distribution and increased home deliveries for our packed food,” Mr Nizar commented.
“As much as it is a good thing that the needy need not go out to collect their food, it is also taking a toll on us as we have to fork out the extra cost for engaging delivery personnel,” he added.
A normal food packing session at Food From The Heart happens twice a day, with a group of 20 volunteers working for two and a half hours, packing an average of 300 food packs. However, in order to ensure the safety and health of their volunteers and staffs, the group has since been downsized to 10 people.
“With tighter restrictions in place, we can only hold 10 volunteers to ensure that there is a one-meter working space at all times,” Ms Sim explained. “In case of a lockdown, we have also made the necessary arrangements to deliver the food items directly from our supplier to the welfare centres. In the worst-case scenario even if we can’t work, at least the benefices are still being taken care of.”
With the limitation on supermarket purchases and the shortage of volunteers to help in packing, Food From The Heart is now appealing for monetary donations to buy food items directly from suppliers. “Besides the big supermarkets, we are also working closely with smaller suppliers. Although they can’t help us in packing, the prices that they have quoted are very reasonable and they are willing to help us do bulk delivery,” Ms Sim mentioned, with regards to their contingency plans.
“We will require approximately S$160,000 to purchase 80,000 food items that can feed 7,500 households monthly. With monetary donations, we will have the flexibility to purchase items that we required urgently and hold onto the money for items which we already have in our warehouse,” Ms Sim added.
To ease public sentiments on charity donations, Giving.sg was established as a safe and secure integrated giving platform, encouraging Singaporeans to play a more significant role in supporting the society. Backed by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, not only can we donate via the website, but Singaporeans can also seek out volunteering activities for the organisations they support.
“Donations from the ‘Help us buy food now’ campaign on Giving.sg are ring-fenced to the purchase of food items. Thus, donors can be assured that the money will be well spent on food-related expenses.” Ms Sim commented. “With big organisations withdrawing their donations, we now, more than ever, need individuals to step out to help as much as possible. A little help goes a long way, and will eventually build to a significant amount that we might not expect.”
Knowing that fellow Singaporeans might also be facing financial difficulties during this period of time, Ms Sim stressed that monetary donation is not the only way one can do to help the less fortunate. “We have to look after ourselves before we are in the position to look after others. If donating is an issue, you can help us by sharing our Facebook posts to get the message out. We need the reach to create awareness and hopefully, those that have the ability to help will do so,” said Ms Sim.
Free Food For All has also come up with an initiative that will benefit supporters who are helping in their cause. The organisation is in the midst creating products that are of lower cost price to sell to the public. This will not only provide savings to the buyer, but it also provides the organisation with a small profit margin to allow the purchase of another meal for the less fortunate.
“We are all in the same boat. All hands on deck and everyone has a part to play. #SGUnited is much needed now, more than ever. We have to work with the government so that they can help us. If everyone’s mind and heart are together, we will have the chance to get back to normal sooner than expected,” concluded Mr Nizar.
As the saying goes, ‘There is light at the end of all tunnels’. This tunnel that we are going through might be a long and dark one, but I believe that if all of us unite as one to face the obstacles hand in hand, none of us will get lost. In fact, we have already witnessed heartwarming stories of Singaporeans helping each other. So trust me, we will get through this together, emerging stronger and better.