With her pink hair and slim, statuesque build, Nichol Ng, 39, cuts an arresting figure amidst mountains of packaged food stacked almost to the ceiling in a gigantic warehouse that she calls her office.
The 39-year-old managing director of local food distribution company and her family business, Food Xervices, started the non-profit charity initiative, The Food Bank, in 2012.
The ‘bank’ collects food donations and redistributes them to beneficiaries to help the less fortunate. Food donations waiting to be re-distributed are kept in the family biz's warehouse in Tanjong Pagar.
“We just wanted to marry excess food with people who need them,” Nichol explains. She recently partnered with Nespresso for the coffee company’s One Pod at a Time recycling campaign, which supplies local farm Quan Fa Organic Farm with coffee grounds from used capsules for compost.
“The organic veggies [grown from the compost] are then donated to us and we include them in our Healthier Food bundles. It’s our way of supporting the local farming community,” she says.
8 DAYS: What gave you the idea to set up The Food Bank?
NICHOL NG: My brother and I started The Food Bank ’cos we realised that the price of food in Singapore is escalating. In 2002, a tin of oil was about $12, and it is over $20 now. Oil makes up the basis of many recipes, so you can imagine how much people have to spend on food these days.
Times are hard now. Even middle income people are coming to us for help while they are in between jobs. Some of them are sole breadwinners who have suddenly lost their jobs. We collect food donations from people who either drop them off at our warehouse, or bring them to our bank boxes located in [some] shopping centres or offices.
We tell people that as long as they have food in their home that’s unopened and has not expired, they are more than welcome to donate it to us, instead of buying new stuff from the supermarket to donate. We try to make it sustainable.
Do you think Singaporeans tend to waste food?
In Singapore, you can get a hot meal for under $3. When food is cheap, people take it for granted and waste it. But some food is kept artificially cheap. [The government] doesn’t impose an import tax on food, so you can get a bunch of bananas for $1. In Australia, it can cost $10 a bunch ’cos they want to protect their farmers and produce.
Singaporeans like to throw away food in pursuit of perfection. It is not just supermarkets tossing out produce that looks less than perfect. Even some fast food chains require french fries to be of a certain length. If some fries fall short of that, they’d throw away the entire container just for quality assurance.
Can cooked food be salvaged?
We have a cooked food rescue programme. We make logistical arrangements to send the food to beneficiaries within a three-hour window. Only packaged food goes to our warehouse. We also collect expired food like canned curry chicken and biscuits to give to animal shelters.
Nene Chicken donates their frozen marinated chicken to us, and Marina Bay Sands gives us their excess food from catering banquets. Redmart also donates about four to five pallets of perishable stuff daily — things like organic greens, tofu and yogurt.
What problems do you face when collecting food donations?
Some people dump their half-eaten food, like chicken wings, in our donation boxes. Our boxes are clearly labelled, but some folks just like to do that. Maybe they mistake it for a rubbish bin (laughs)!
We’ve done food drives for natural disasters before, and it saddened us to see the kind of food that was donated. During the Typhoon Haiyan drive [in 2014], we helped churches curate the food they received from food drives, and there were half-eaten Panadol tabs and opened 3-in-1 coffee sachets tied with rubber bands. Some food businesses have also used us as a dumping ground. They send us photos of bloated packets of food and tell us it is still good for consumption.
We had to tell people that they can’t donate what they don’t want to eat. They don’t have malicious intentions, but a lot of education is required.
Is it true that certain products, like dry goods, are still good for consumption after their expiry date?
I’m not encouraging people to eat expired food, but in the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has an extended shelf life checklist for all the products that are acceptable. Things like baby formula and dairy products are a no-go, but frozen chicken can be consumed up to three months after their expiry date. Canned food have about an additional six months [of shelf life] after they expire.
The same product can have different expiry dates in different countries, depending on the local laws. In Asia, charities require donated products to be at least two months away from expiring, and some beneficiaries actually request for certain product brands. They don’t just want coffee — they want a particular brand of coffee (laughs). So we want to educate them that a biscuit is a biscuit, even if it’s not from a brand they want.
Are buffets a waste of food?
I think it’s important for consumers to dine responsibly. Sometimes buffets and catering services waste a fair bit of food ’cos in Asian culture, more food is always better. People always order 10 per cent more food than what their guests would be able to eat ’cos they are afraid that they would run out of food. That causes a lot of food wastage.
And some caterers don’t allow you to tapow the food. In Singapore, the ruling is that you must consume catered food within four hours. At kopitiams, the cai png stall uncle has to refresh his dishes every four hours. Sometimes you may notice lots of styrofoam boxes sitting on a table at the stall, and those are given away for free to the needy.
How do you reduce food wastage at home?
I have three kids — my eldest is four-and-a-half years old, my second is two-and-a-half years old and my youngest is three months old. I teach them where their food comes from and how hard it is to produce food. We have a small garden at home where we grow tomatoes and bean sprouts. My kids would go, “Wow, they take so long to grow.”
I also clear out my fridge every day and use up everything that needs to be consumed soon. If the mushrooms are going mushy, I toss them in a slow cooker to make vegetable stew. I make my own jams with apples and strawberries, which go bad quite fast in our weather! I found a veggie shelf life extension pack from Amazon. It’s a packet of herbs that you put in the veggie compartment of your fridge and it keeps your veggies fresh longer.
I don’t often eat lunch, but my brother likes bringing a bento box to work with last night’s excess food for his lunch. We don’t have the culture of salvaging leftovers in Singapore; we just eat fresh food at every meal. But in Japan, bento boxes with the previous night’s food are the norm. You can also make a market list when you go grocery shopping, so you don’t shop with a blank mind and buy on impulse!
For more info about donating your food, go to www.foodbank.sg