For some of us in Singapore, hunger might only be an experience of dieting; but in many households, hunger – food insecurity – is a persistent reality.
Food insecurity is defined as a lack of nutritious and safe foods in one’s environment, and an inability or unguaranteed capacity to access food in a sustainable, socially acceptable way (Anderson, 1990). In 2020, the Lien Centre published the first extensive study of food insecurity in Singapore, highlighting how approximately 10% of 1200 sampled households experienced food insecurity in the last 12 months, wherein food insecurity may be associated with housing type (living in one or two-room flats), lower educational and income levels (Nagpaul et al., 2020).
Coping with ‘Not-Enough’
To cope, individuals stretch their dollars by skipping meals, cutting portions, placing others’ food needs before one’s own; suppressing hunger or appetite through distractions like sleep; prioritising foods that are filling over nutrition or flavour; strict budgeting for groceries (extreme planning, walking multiple trips to multiple markets and supermarkets to compare most affordable prices, shopping only on certain days where discounts are offered to members of assistance schemes e.g., FairPrice supermarkets offer 3% discounts for CHAS Blue card holders, only on Thursdays), preparing limited foods that family members would not waste; making trade-offs in other aspects of expenditure etc.
Charitable organisations also provide various forms of food aid depending on individuals’ eligibility as beneficiaries (evaluated through means-testing), and, above all, individuals’ (un)awareness of available aid in the first place and personal beliefs of ‘self-reliance’, ‘deservingness’. Efforts currently include food rations, free meals to be collected or delivered to flats, grocery, meal vouchers, or newer initiatives like community pantries. Overall, recipients of food aid mainly feel like they benefit from such assistance by having fewer experiences of hunger, and being able to re-allocate money for other necessities like utilities (Nagpaul et al., 2020).
While these are undeniably important outcomes, it is equally critical to examine the sustainability of existing food assistance measures. Several gaps have already been brought to attention: duplication of efforts and excess of food aid between regular or ad hoc initiatives; inability to reach unidentified food-insecure households; dependence on volunteer availability (especially drivers, which limits cooked meals distribution timings e.g., giving both lunch and dinner early, together, which becomes unsafe for consumption without resources to reheat food); the lack of nutritious, culturally appropriate, or preferred food options (Chok, 2021).
The Right to Food
Retrieved from: https://www.beyond.org.sg/another-week-beyond-2135/
However, beyond addressing food insecurity through the lenses of food as sustenance only to reduce the hunger that affects vulnerable groups, we should think of food security in terms of fairness, autonomy, and desire – for all of us, as members of society. Researcher Stephanie Chok (2021) argues that this involves a shift to a rights-based, food justice framework: where principles of production, working conditions of food systems are re-examined, aligned with affordable but responsible food pricing; where communities are adequately supported to organise and advocate for their food security; where highly interlinked factors of income, education, housing, gender, racial inequalities must also be acted upon at various structural levels of funding, subsidies, or service delivery. Chok’s call for a rights-based approach to food is echoed by other social policy researchers in Singapore, notably the Minimum Income Standard (MIS) research project undertaken by Ng and colleagues (2021), where they reinforced how basic food needs encompass more than just having food as fuel for survival; they should instead be supported by the state and society’s commitment to a basal, adequate income for all - to enjoy food socially, with autonomy and irrevocable dignity.
Ultimately, we need to imagine the right to food as we want it. Is it simply a right of not experiencing scarcity, anxiety? Does it encompass a right to enjoy a range of eating experiences: eating out, trying a variety of cuisines, local, seasonal produce? Does it encompass a right to enjoy cooking: experimenting with various styles, preparation processes, sourcing and use of diverse ingredients – and also nourishing others? How might we then imagine this in others’ lives?
Food for thought:
Do you think current public health campaigns and efforts to provide nutrition education to food-insecure households are effective interventions?
What are the benefits and limitations of prioritising one form of food assistance over another (e.g., providing food rations instead of giving grocery vouchers)?
How do the negative impacts of food insecurity reinforce the disadvantaged positions of individuals with lower socioeconomic statuses?
Written by Chong Kai Qing, Year 2, Double Major in Sociology & Social Work
Anderson, S. A. (1990). Core indicators of nutritional state for difficult-to-sample populations. The Journal of Nutrition, 120(Suppl. 11), 1555-1600. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/120.suppl_11.1555
Chok, S. (2021). “People give, just take and eat”: Food insecurity and food aid in a public rental neighbourhood in Singapore. Beyond Social Services. https://beyondresearch.sg/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/BSS-Food-Insecurity-Report-2021.pdf
Nagpaul, T., Sidhu, D., & Chen, J. (2020). The hunger report: An in-depth look at food insecurity in Singapore. Lien Centre for Social Innovation: Research. https://ink.library.smu.edu.sg/lien_reports/15/
Ng, K. H., Teo, Y. Y., Neo, Y. W., Maulod, A., Chok, S., & Wong, Y. L. (2021). What people need in Singapore: A household budgets study. https://whatsenough.sg/key-findings-mis2021/