No Poverty Line, No Problem?

Food Bank co-founder Nichol Ng doesn't think so.

No Poverty Line, No Problem?

How does economical rice for virtually every meal sound?

It’s a flat ‘no’ from most, but for Singapore’s underprivileged, they don’t have the luxury of choice.

In her 7 years of running Singapore’s first food bank and a lifetime of social work, Nichol Ng — the third-generation scion of Foodxervices — got a bleak look at what the needy were given to eat each day: Cold rice, two mandatory servings of vegetables, and some indeterminate form of meat squeezed into an immutable styrofoam box.

For a country that dumps 30% of the food it imports, it could provide a lot better than that, she thought.

“Why do the needy always have to eat food that’s bland and innutritious?” she says. “We have more than enough food in Singapore to feed everybody well, so why aren’t we doing that?”

Now, Ng wants to end all forms of food insecurity in the country by 2025. And if it means that she has to shutter the Food Bank entirely, so be it.

Her latest venture, TangoTab, is a US-based app that was launched in Singapore back in April. It’s like Eatigo or Foursquare for a good cause; Each time a diner checks in at a participating restaurant, a sum of money gets donated to a relevant charity organisation in Singapore. “Essentially, when you eat, someone less fortunate than you gets to eat too,” says Ng.

But unlike how the app works in the US, there’s isn’t a specific dollar value attached to the meal—because they just can’t calculate one. It makes things difficult for TangoTab to assess how much good they are doing, or to estimate what sort of meals their beneficiaries are getting. It’s a bit of a bugbear for Ng, one that she attributes to Singapore’s lack of an official minimum wage or relevant price index.

That’s why she’s commissioning a $250,000 report from the Lien Foundation for Social Innovation. The 20-month study will provide Food Bank and other welfare organisations with tangible numbers representative of the entire country, allowing them to establish figures such like a minimum liveable age and poverty statistics.

“We got fed up that Singapore has no official numbers for poverty issues,” says Ng. “If you don’t have these solid figures, how do the charities, the NGOs, the VWOs — how do we know what we are slogging for?”

The launch event for Tango Tab saw a huge turnout — but the crowd was merely a fraction of Singapore’s needy

Ng runs through an entire notepad as she outlines the plans she has to make good on her ambitious new mission statement. Aside from the nationwide report that she’s paying for out of her own pocket, she’s setting up Food Bank’s very first central kitchen by the end of the year, when she moves her entire base of operations into a 250,000 sqft complex in Pandan Loop.

There, Ng plans to make good use of the tonnes of excess food that gets donated to the organisation each day. Cooked food from restaurants and hotels across the island will be recooked into nutritious bento sets, crafted in consultation with the Health Promotion Board. Fresh produce—rejected by retailers for failing to meet obsessive vanity checks—get a new lease of life.

These bento boxes will then be placed inside specialised vending machines at Family Service Centres across the island. Not only will eligible families be able to choose the exact meal that they want at any time, those reluctant to accept handouts will also be given their privacy, says Ng.

She hopes that her nutritious bento boxes do more than just provide a hot meal for Food Bank’s beneficiaries: Ng also hopes that they can teach the underprivileged how to eat more nutritiously, so they can recreate the dishes using the dried rations given to them—so the saying goes.

Food Bank partners with various organisations around Singapore to collect excess food, which Ng later repurposes into nutritious bentos

For Ng, who runs Foodxervices and the Food Bank alongside her brother Nicholas, socially conscious work had always been a part of her upbringing. She recalls afternoons as a child spent with her family cutting nails for the homebound, and her mother’s work with the Lion’s Club. 

But the real tipping point came when she was a teenager and her family was declared bankrupt. 

“When you’re there when the banks come to see your house, and you see your mom’s Mercedes being towed away…” Ng pauses. “We felt that if we had the chance to rebuild yeye’s business back to a certain scale, there was always an obligation that we should give back to society.”

She’s deathly intent on sticking to her 2025 deadline, but her plans don’t stop there. Ng also wants to look beyond Singapore and help other Asian nations that don’t have the resources to do what she’s doing.

“Singapore is fortunate. We’re in a better position than other countries to end food insecurity, and if we can help them do that, we will,” she says.

For now, Ng has her plate full with putting herself out of business.

“I’m not here to line any profit and loss statements, I’m not here to earn. The earlier the Food Bank is put out of business, the better,” she says. “Because that means that Singapore has done a great job, that everyone has constant access to great, healthy food.”

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