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Free food? Groups that 'rescue' rejected food see increase in demand amid inflation

·Senior Reporter
·6-min read
Recipients picking out
Groups that collect rescued – free – food from businesses have seen an uptick in demand for them. (PHOTOS: Fridge Restock Community SG Facebook)

SINGAPORE — Demand for free food – that come in the form of rejected produce or excessive supply from grocers or businesses – is spiking alongside rising costs of living due to inflation.

Three ground-up, non-profit groups that "rescue" such food, such as fruits and vegetables which are typically rejected for flawed appearances or cooked food surpluses, told Yahoo Finance Singapore that they have seen a surge in recipients and demand over the last 12 to 18 months, signalling a greater awareness of such movements. Free-sharing app OLIO has also seen demand for free food heating up on its platform.

Most attributed climbing demand to a hiking of prices of basic necessities, which is expected to tax recipients – some of whom come from lower income groups – further.

Inflation rose across all items from 5.4 per cent in April to 5.6 per cent in May, according to figures released by the Monetary Authority of Singapore a week ago. Food inflation rose from 4.1 per cent in April to 4.5 per cent in May.

In anticipation of rising costs, the Singapore government earlier this month announced a S$1.5 billion support package to help businesses and residents cushion the effects, noting that price increases are expected to continue in the coming months.

Non-governmental organisation Divert for 2nd Life (D2L) has seen a twofold increase over the past 12 months in the demand for food saved by the group, especially for staples such as fresh produce. Founder Lin Qing Hui thinks that the spike is due to the increased awareness of food waste and increasing food prices.

D2L typically sees recipients above 40 years old who have children, according to Lin.

The group, which currently has 10,000 recipients who collect rescued food from volunteers and at distribution events islandwide, expects demand to increase.

Lin intends to increase the frequency of D2L's collections, and recruit more volunteers to cope with demand.

Lin, who is self employed and in her 30s, is also on the lookout for more businesses and organisations who can provide excess food. The group accepts cooked food, dairy products, meat and produce.

One recipient, pharmaceutical manager Celeste Soh, found out about D2L last year and started collecting bread and pastries once to twice weekly. The food that she "saves" is consumed by her mother, sister, brother and colleagues.

Grassroots-led groups to step up distribution efforts

Fridge Restock Community Singapore, which stocks 18 fridges that are accessible to the public with "ugly" fruit and vegetables, have also observed a significant increase in demand for such food.

Its founder, minimart owner Daniel Yap Eng Yeow, says that demand has doubled over the past 12 months, with the group currently serving 800 to 1,000 families. Apart from stocking community fridges, the group also distributes food at eight locations.

Yap has stepped up the group’s collection of rescued food to twice weekly to cater to more distribution points expected to be arranged this month.

“Our rescuers feel bad whenever we reject our donor surplus. Sometimes (the donor) has four pallets (of goods) for us but we only can fit two pallets in our distribution. The other two pallets... they will pass to another group who will also collect from them. There's always extra for us to collect in our missions,” said Yap.

Yap feels that demand is driven by the growing awareness of food rescue movements, education about food waste, and soaring food prices. Residents who collect free food can save $50 to $100 every month, he estimated.

He is looking to increase the volume of distributions with the support of the corporate and government sectors.

Another similar initiative, Food Rescue Sengkang, estimates that demand for its rescued food has risen by about 30 to 40 per cent over the past 18 months. The group distributes 15 to 20 tonnes of rescued food on average per week – it hits 30 tonnes on some weeks.

Co-founder Janet Lee, who is in her 40s, said that distribution events are organised across 15 locations which are mostly around rental blocks and serve about 2,000 to 3,000 families weekly. She cites easier accessibility to such food and public awareness as factors that drive demand.

Asked if the numbers are likely to persist, Lee, who is a business owner, said, “The number (of people) collecting rescued food will definitely increase, but (whether) it will be a permanent increase is yet to be seen. Many may come forward to ‘find out and explore’ these free rescue food, but will they be able to accept the condition will be a separate issue. We have many rescuers that show up to rescue these food but they discard them at the next available bin.”

                      

Free-sharing app sees increase in both supply and demand for free food

For one free-sharing application, the level of activity around free food has spurred the business to get in on the action.

OLIO is an app through which users can either give away or pick up unwanted food items. It established a local team earlier this year to run a programme similar to other local rescued food initiatives.

The program, dubbed “Food Waste Heroes”, was mooted in February and involves OLIO collaborating with food businesses to redistribute surplus food to the community.

OLIO has seen a large uptick in Singapore users since 2019 even though it was available four years prior. To date, more than 130,000 people use the app in Singapore.

OLIO’s country lead in Singapore, Yien Li Yap, told Yahoo Finance Singapore that the growth can be seen in both users who want items and users who list them. Nearly 70 per cent of OLIO’s Singapore users give things away via the app, and the volume of food listings has doubled since a year ago, alongside listings for other items.

Said Yap, “The number of users in Singapore grew very organically because of the existing freegan, food rescue and redistribution networks that we see here adopting OLIO as their main app for food distribution. Lots of people find it more convenient than other platforms or messaging services.”

Singaporeans prefer to share good food and household items that might otherwise go to waste, she noted.

The app’s most popular food listings are kombucha starter cultures, sourdough starters, and fresh herbs.

Of the 200 to 250 food items listed daily, most are taken within half an hour, with some snapped up in under five minutes, she said.

Yap expects demand for free food to increase in the next 12 months given the rising cost of living.

“Even very local issues like the chicken shortage are a wake-up call for us about our food supply and the cost of food,” she said.

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