1. Managing director of FoodXervices Inc.
2. Co-founded The Food Bank Singapore in 2012 to address food wastage and redistribute excess food to the needy.
3. Urges healthier food donations.
4. Works with F&B establishments to salvage and redistribute cooked food that would otherwise be thrown away.
5. President of One (Singapore), which aims to end poverty and inequality.
We are all aware, at least subliminally, that there is wastage in the food industry. The ugly food movement in recent years highlighted the automatic discard of misshapen yet perfectly edible produce. We read, feel a prick of conscience perhaps, we move on.
Not Nichol Ng, who has made it her personal mission to redistribute as much excess food as she can to the needy in Singapore. What time she has left over from raising her three children – her youngest son was just 28 days old when we met – and running the four companies under the family’s food services business with her brother Nicholas, is spent managing The Food Bank Singapore (FBSG) and non-profit organisation One (Singapore), which aims to eradicate poverty and inequality.
“Being in the food industry means we are behind the scenes a lot and see food being rejected for many stupid reasons, from tiny dents in cans and a minor printing error on the packaging to unreasonable expiry date issues,” the 38-year-old says. “Singapore imports over 90 per cent of its food and throws out 30 per cent of it, yet 10 per cent of our population is ‘food-insecure’, thanks to rising prices. It made Nicholas and me question if there was a better way to do this.”
Apparently there is, because FBSG receives about 60 tonnes of unused food (mostly from corporations) a month to be sent to 100,000 beneficiaries from 183 partner organisations, including Beyond Social Services, Lions Home for the Elders, Metta Welfare Association and Muhammadiyah Welfare Home. It is a huge jump from the two tonnes a year when they started out in 2012.
Recalling her early challenges, Ng says: “Registering the name was a pain in the butt. Acra rejected the name because Singapore doesn’t issue any more banking licences. I had to explain what food banking was and it took two to three months before we got approval.” The concept of a food bank began in 1967 in the US and is generally defined as a place where companies or people can donate unused food that will be collected and allocated to the needy.
That was the first of many hurdles. “Larger food companies are highly protective of their branding and worried about liability issues. Local towkays would rather give a $20,000 cheque than donate food worth that amount, because their peers might think their business is bad if they have leftovers to give.”
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Ng also regularly received hostile comments online from the ignorant who accused FBSG of donating garbage to the needy. “All the badmouthing was disheartening, but it takes a lot of water to put out my fire, so I guess there isn’t enough water yet. There are bigger things in life than just mulling over the negative. After a while, we became immune because we know we are doing more good than bad.
“When we started, we knew there was a need. But we didn’t know there were so many heartbreaking moments related to food. We were told that some pre-school children have only one meal a day at the childcare centre, because their parents have no money,” Ng recalls.
Her passion is augmented by her own experience with hunger. “I suffered from eating disorders for over 20 years. I once starved myself for five days and I can tell you that anyone who has to go to bed hungry won’t be able to sleep or function properly. Food is more than just filling the stomach, so we started Project Eat-Better this year to raise money for and awareness of healthier food donations and our Eat-Better cookbook.”
FBSG also works with Marina Bay Sands and Hilton Singapore Hotel to salvage cooked food that would otherwise be dumped, and Ng is also in talks with fast food chains, bakeries and restaurants to expand this Food Rescue Project.
With this much on her plate, it’s a good thing Ng’s drive is as fiery as her red hair. “There’s no legacy worth building without a home to go back to, which is why my husband and I believe that the best thing we can leave our kids isn’t money, but our values.”
In 60 Seconds
One advice for those who want to champion a cause is: To know that you have to be in it for the long haul. Many charities and social enterprises come and go, so you need to have longevity to prove yourself. Some say you need money but I think itʼs more important to get people who believe in the same cause on board. Itʼll make the journey easier.
The three apps I can’t live without are: Iʼm a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to technology. My only ʻappʼ is my two-inch thick diary where I write down every note and appointment.
My greatest weakness is: Not delegating. I always feel that if I can do something, I wonʼt trouble others. But as the charities and business grow, I realise I cannot do it all on my own.