Taking the first step in tackling Singapore's food wastage problem

"If you don't finish your food, your spouse's face will have pimples and pockmarks," goes an old Chinese saying.

It used to scare kids enough that we'd actually polish off the food on our plates.

But I suspect it may not be working so well these days, going by the numbers released by the Singapore Environment Council last week.

In case you missed it: 800,000 tonnes of food wasted. In one year. That will need 1,420 Airbus A380s to carry the load.

And this amount can feed every person in Singapore a meal a day for an entire year.

The Government is concerned enough that in September, the Food Wastage Reduction Working Group commissioned a food waste survey involving 1,000 Singaporeans aged 18 and above to try to figure out the source of the food wastage problem.

The group was set up in 2012 to come up with recommendations and initiatives to address the problem.

The results of that survey should be made known soon. Previous reports have pointed fingers at the manufacturing and retail sectors for food waste.

Essentially, retailers dump bruised or ugly fruit and vegetables because they say people simply won't buy them.

People are also ordering too much food and leaving them uneaten.

I headed to the heartlands this week to get a ground-up perspective of how much this issue affects heartlanders. The buzzwords "food wastage" and the survey mean little to them, but in their own way, they already have been finding ways to minimise the throwing out of products.

And it's simply down to economics for these folks: The less they throw, the less they lose.

For instance: vegetable sellers and fruit sellers say that for the last three years, they have been setting aside and repackaging damaged produce. Mr Remy Chua, 42, who owns a fruit stall in Pasir Ris is one of them. He says: "It is better to sell them cheaper than to throw the fruits, which at most times, are still edible."

Mr Low Kok Tiong, 59, a fruit seller in Bukit Merah, says regulars who buy his dented produce are foreign workers and families who shop on tight budgets.

Madam Ann Ng, 60, a vegetable seller in Bedok, says she used to discard "around five to six big baskets" of ugly vegetables each week, but that has changed since her son started to help out at the stall.

Her son, Mr Johnny Cheng, 40, credits his girlfriend for mooting the idea of repackaging his mother's usual discards.

"Customers demand that the vegetables they buy must not have pest marks and the colours must be in acceptable shades," he says.

"Some of them even reject those that look too ripe because that means they would have to cook right away.

"Instead of throwing them away, we identified a few cai png (Hokkien for economical rice) and zhi char stalls and sell to them at cost price."

Most hawkers I speak to also say they rarely have a day where they throw out lots of food.

Through experience, they know how much to prepare and which are their busy and slow days.

Again, it's economics. They have learnt to make sure they don't lose too much.

Unlike the wet market stalls, cooked food hawkers say they don't have the luxury of such repackaging. At Bukit Merah, economical rice hawker Lim Chwee Gek, 58, says:

"We learn to 'agak agak' (Malay for estimate) how much we should cook, or end up extending the operation hours."

Or selling the unsold food at a discount, she adds.

On this jaunt, my eyes were opened to well, expectations and perspectives. I know that many consumers, myself included, have a certain idea of what an apple or melon should look like. And when the fruit does not conform to that, I don't pick it.

When I meet housewife Norhafizah Rathia, 43, she is picking some greens from a stall in the wet market at Clementi Avenue 3.

But the greens don't really look that fresh.

As she stuffs the vegetables in a recycled bag, she says in Malay: "Sayang (dear), you see this bag? It'd probably cost twice as much if they were fresh and leafy." She walks over to the fruits stall to collect a bag of mostly squashed oranges and apples.

"All you need to do is to cut out the 'bad' or 'ugly' portions and the rest of the fruits are edible," she says.

As "ugly" as the food may seem to most of us, it helps Madam Norhafizah to feed her family of 10, which includes her parents-in-law and five children, aged between seven and 13.

While they get financial assistance under various schemes, she reckons it is her responsibility to be thrifty.

Technician Yeo Kwee Seng, 37, has a list of stalls in two food centres - one near his workplace and another just across his home in Ang Mo Kio - where he will swing by for lunch or dinner, but "after the peak hours".

By this, he says: "I usually get a bigger serving as the hawkers will prefer not to throw away the unsold dishes."

He adds with a smile: "It works best for dinner because I can just buy one packet and share it with the wife."

Mr Yeo says that it is not as if he can't really afford it, but "a meal is just a meal", so he does not see why he shouldn't save whatever he can. It's really about attitudes, right? I suspect we have gone from a society of frugal savers to one that lives it up a little.

Mr Low Kok Tiong, the fruit seller in Bukit Merah, says in Mandarin that customers sometimes damage the produce by pressing and prodding, and refuse to buy it after.

But if we change our attitudes a bit, maybe that bruised fruit would be not so problematic?

Waste not, want not, my mother used to say.

That adage has, I confess, become quite remote in my household.

Vegetables that are not so green?

Apples that are not rosy enough? Oranges that are out of shape?


And when I go do the monthly stock-up-the-larder supermarket shopping, my purchases are often "wholesale-habit" - this means buying about half a dozen at one go.

But without proper stock-taking before the next trip, it also means buying in excess and we end up with products past their expiry dates.

We can leave the Government to work on its initiative to cut food wastage on a national level, but let's take the first step on our own, shall we?

This article was first published on November 9, 2014.
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