Shop for free at Taiwan's food banks

Mr Lin Wan, 58, went shopping at a supermarket for the first time in a long time just over a week ago.

Pushing a small trolley, he picked up packs of dried noodles, a tin of milk powder, a large bag of oatmeal drink mix, a few packs of tidbits - and walked out without paying a cent. It was Mr Lin's first visit to the Taichung City Food Bank, which opened in August last year as the first facility in Taiwan where the needy can pick up free groceries and toiletries.

Mr Lin, a divorcee and former carpenter, has suffered from kidney problems for the past 15 years and can work only odd jobs.

He has survived on welfare assistance for the past six years. "Very good, very good," Mr Lin nodded when asked about his "shopping" trip at the 330 sq m food bank. Run like a mini supermarket, it has separate sections for various types of supplies, from salt to sanitary pads, and is equipped with donated trolleys and a "checkout" counter manned by volunteers.

Every last Saturday of the month, up to 300 beneficiaries like Mr Lin visit the store on the seventh floor of No.1 Square, an ageing mall about a 10-minute walk from the train station in Taichung, central Taiwan. Here they "buy" supplies using points allocated to them - between 1,000 and 2,000 points based on the size of their households - by the Taichung branch of the Red Cross Society, which runs the food bank in collaboration with the Taichung city government.

All items in the store are donated by corporations or the general public and are "priced" in points. A large bottle of cooking oil, for example, costs 160 points.

Canned food is 35 points a piece. "It's a more dignified, humanised way of helping as beneficiaries don't feel so much like they are receiving handouts," said Mr Jeff Chen, director of the Taichung Red Cross, comparing the supermarket concept to the usual practice of sending prepacked supplies to needy households.

Food banks originated in the United States in the 1960s and are now found in Britain, Australia, Europe, and, in recent years, Africa and Asia. A central warehouse usually receives and stores donations of foodstuff, which is then redistributed to welfare organisations, which then pass the supplies to beneficiaries.

Besides helping the less fortunate, food banks have also been praised for fostering philanthropy and reducing waste, as the supplies they receive are often flawed or excess goods, like dented canned food, that are good for consumption but not for sale.

In Taiwan, several food bank networks have emerged since the 2008 global financial crisis. As of last year, 640,000 Taiwanese were classified as low or low-middle income and qualified for government assistance. But the food banks set their sights not just on the cash-strapped but anyone in need, such as disaster victims, single mothers, or people who had just lost their jobs.

"Since we are a food bank, our priority is the hungry," said Mr Liu Yi-chung, executive director of Taiwan People's Food Bank Association. It was established in 2011 by a Christian organisation and has so far helped 200,000 beneficiaries, regardless of their religion, in Taipei, Taoyuan, Taichung and Chiayi.

The Taichung Food Bank, besides running the "supermarket", serves as the warehouse for 26 other monthly distribution stations in the city set up by the government since 2009. In all, they received about NT$35million (S$1.5million) in funding and donations last year and supplied food and other goods to some 3,000 households each month. Some stations also offer services like free haircuts.

Corporations are pitching in. Pxmart, the largest supermarket operator in Taiwan, launched a scheme in July 2011 which gives needy households a stored value card - NT$500 or NT$1,000 is credited a month to the card for up to one year. They can spend the money on anything - except alcohol and tobacco - at any of Pxmart's 665 stores islandwide.

"Since we have a wide network of supermarkets, it's a ready-made channel for our charity scheme," said Ms Chang Yi-chun, executive secretary of the Pxmart Qing Xiang Charity Foundation which administers the programme. She estimates that 410,000 people have benefited from the scheme to date.

The food banks look set to grow. Ms Chang said Pxmart will double the monthly assistance next year, potentially increasing the outlay for the scheme to NT$80 million a year.

Mr Liu of the Taiwan People's Food Bank Association said the group plans to open a supermarket-style facility in northern Taiwan. In Taichung, three more such food banks are being planned, one of which will open by the end of the year.

"The most valuable thing about food banks is the spirit of giving it fosters," said Ms Liao Su-ling of the city government's social affairs bureau.

seokhwai@sph.com.sg

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