“Incoming, incoming,” Geraldine Chong shouts as a forklift hurtles towards us, laden with pallets of fresh produce. Her companions deftly manoeuvre their trolley to avoid it. Located on Singapore’s western coast, the vast Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre thrums with activity.
I’m trailing a group of veteran food rescuers as they salvage rejected greens from vegetable and fruit sellers. Things move at lightning speed here — as huge trucks trundle in, harried vendors bark out instructions and the rescuers race around to collect the goods, guerrilla-style. For a newbie like myself, it feels like a scavenger hunt, a whirlwind adventure.
Chong, a former client service director at an international media company, took part in her first salvage mission with SG Food Rescue (SGFR), which rescues unsellable but edible food, in 2018.
She discovered that all it takes is a few ugly, overripe, defective or mouldy fruits for the wholesaler to throw out an entire batch, partly because it is too time-consuming and resource-heavy to sort them individually. There is also a strict process of aesthetic filtering.
The end result? A mountain of food waste. In 2019, Singapore generated about 744,000 tonnes of food waste — the equivalent of some 51,000 double-decker buses, weight-wise.
“The amount was a lot more than I imagined,” Chong says. “We’re so conditioned to think that just because we pay money, we want the best, the prettiest.” That realisation jolted her to action and Chong now participates in weekly veggie rescue missions at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre.
The green crusade
I joined her group comprising a motley crew of retirees, housewives and working professionals on a Monday morning. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, things have been scaled down and special passes are needed to enter the complex. Efficient and businesslike, they split into two teams to cover the fruits and veggies section. Armed with stacks of empty boxes and a long metal trolley borrowed from a vendor, it was time to hunt.
To be a good food rescuer, one needs to be physically strong, resourceful and have the know-how to sort through the rescued food. He must also possess a steely resolve, a tough hide and plenty of charm to win over even the surliest of vendors, says Chong, who is in her mid-50s.
Over the next hour and a half, we make our way around the sprawling auction hall, to the cold room and the individual vendors, asking if they have anything to discard. The rescuers have become so recognisable that the vendors have already set aside boxes for them.
Passing by the loading bay, Chong spies dozens of boxes of discarded tomatoes in a corner. Together with another rescuer Mathilda Antao, they methodically slice open the boxes with a penknife, examine each tomato under the brutal sun to see what can be saved from the bin.
It’s laborious work. Nearly every tomato is bruised, split and rotten and we’re on the verge of giving up until we get to the very last box. The tomatoes appear to be in fairly good condition. “These are perfectly fine, it’s just lumped in with the bad boxes,” exclaims Chong.
Finally, the group reconvenes at the meeting spot and lay out their haul, which amounts to nearly 600kg worth of mandarin oranges, watermelons, pears, rockmelons, peaches, brinjals, capsicums, cucumbers and other leafy veggies.
Then, it’s “shopping time”. The rescuers get first dibs. They swarm over the loot, stuffing the goods into their trolleys, into sturdy grocery bags and backpacks. To my dismay, I realise that I’d forgotten to bring an extra tote bag. Someone passes me an extra bag and urges me to help myself. Their enthusiasm is infectious and I start to get into the swing of things, taking a fruit here and there.
Antao, a homemaker, is taking home extra as she plans to give it to her friends and to the construction workers in her neighbourhood. Another rescuer, who has collected Thai basil, tomatoes and oranges, says she has the week’s menu settled — pesto pasta, spaghetti bolognese and orange juice. Andre, another rescuer, gifts me a bag of rescued bread of mysterious origins. “It’s better not to ask too many questions,” he says with a wry grin.
For Chong, life now couldn’t be more different. In the past, she would eat out at high-end restaurants, splurge on branded goods and the latest phones and indulge in five-star hotels and spas, simply because everyone around her was doing so.
“When you’re working, you tend to dine in nice expensive places. You’d kill to go to the next Michelin-star restaurant,” says Chong. “Everyone over orders and you don’t bat an eyelid. You don’t think about how you don’t finish what’s on your plate.”
These days, she gets weird looks and stares from people doing what she does, “running around, grabbing all sorts of funny things, getting their hands dirty”, something she brushes off.
Others also tend to stereotype rescuers like herself as needy, but that isn’t always the case. It’s a lifestyle choice to consume more purposefully, she explains. Since joining SGFR, Chong hardly shops for greens from the market anymore. “When was the last time I bought a carrot or a capsicum? I think it’s been more than a year!”
Giving back to the community
A fleet of cars pull up, comprising volunteers who will ferry the remaining produce to community fridges across the island. There’s more than enough to go around, but the real challenge is in packing the boxes.
Like a game of Tetris, the rescuers and volunteers struggle to cram the boxes into the cars. Then, they drive off to stock fridges in Marine Terrace, Punggol and Woodlands.
Beyond eliminating food waste, it’s also about giving back to the community, says another veteran food rescuer Winnie Cheong, who has been part of SGFR since 2017.
She leads food rescues and also ensures a bulk of the rescued food goes to local charity Willing Hearts, which operates a soup kitchen that prepares, cooks and distributes about 9,500 daily meals to the elderly, poverty-stricken families and migrant workers.
On top of juggling work as a marketing professional in the IT industry, Cheong coordinates donations of near-expired or expired dried goods, which range from biscuits to cereal, rice, shampoo, washing detergent and toilet paper.
After the goods are dropped off at her home, she channels it to other ground-up initiative groups and members of the food rescue community. She also shares it with people in her neighbourhood, such as cleaners and those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
Pointing to Singapore’s throwaway culture, Cheong recalls feeling sick to her stomach seeing eight large trash bags of perfectly good bread from a bakery being thrown out one night during a night-time bread rescue.
“We are a nation that wants everything fast. Everything is instant,” she says. “And we aren’t made to clear our own rubbish, so we don’t have a visual sense of the amount of waste or the hard work that goes into preparing food.”
Living a zero-waste lifestyle
This passion to curb food waste has now trickled to other parts of her life. When Cheong needs something, her first instinct is no longer to buy it but to source for pre-loved goods on various Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram groups.
To date, she has adopted a standing fan, fridge, bookshelves, sewing machine (“one of her best finds”), old vintage sarongs (“with so much history”), microwave oven, plants and even makeup and skincare products.
Being part of this freecycle economy, Cheong says she is reminded of her childhood, when she received hand-me-downs and lived a frugal lifestyle. But as people’s earning power and disposable incomes grew, along with aspirations, buying became a go-to.
“These days, I no longer reach for my wallet as easily. I don’t believe in amassing a lot of things, but keeping what works for me,” she says.
Over the recent Chinese New Year, as we feasted and made merry, the food, especially the ones I helped rescue, somehow tasted more delicious.
This made me reflect on my own sustainability journey. Over the last year, I’ve done a deep dive into the composting community, gone thrift shopping (something I used to shy away from) at places like Threadlightly and Refash and sourced for pre-loved books at Books Beyond Borders, and recycled my electronic waste.
And now, I’ve had my first taste of food rescues. It can be backbreaking, icky, tiring work, but I’m slowly beginning to understand the appeal. It’s the thrill of discovery, of stumbling upon a golden find. But more than that, it is that sense of doing something purposeful for the Earth.
Or as Chong describes, discovering a sense of newfound camaraderie with strangers, finding a community.
“It’s an activity that I look forward to. I sweat it out, I do my part for the environment and I meet a bunch of people who think alike, and have fun in the process,” she says. “And best of all? You never know what you might end up rescuing.”