According to the World Health Organisation, malnutrition can be defined as stunting, being underweight, wasting, undernutrition, obesity, and/or being overweight as a result of inadequate or improper intake of macro and micro nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, that eventually lead to diet-related diseases such as diabetes, or beriberi (World health Organisation, 2021). The statistics reveal that in 2020, across the globe, 149 million children were stunted or too short/small for their age, 45 million children were wasted – too thin for their height, and 38.9 million children suffered from obesity and its related effects. In addition, 45% of child motility (deaths) in middle and low economic status countries were a direct result of malnutrition. To compound the issue, 1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese, while 462 million are severely underweight (World Health Organisation, 2021).
The issue is often systemic resulting in vicious cycles as a correlation and direct consequence of poverty and the lack of access. It is not difficult to see why. Good nutrition is expensive. Why would a person who is struggling to feed her family of six on a paltry salary below the poverty belt opt for healthy groceries – for the purposes of this write-up: groceries needed for 1 person to eat healthily: beef ($21/kg), broccoli ($5 – $9.50 per head), when a person can get a fast-food burger for $2.50 per person, or five packs of instant noodles for the same price?
It may be surprising to hear or to read that in Singapore, a city country, rich and affluent, 1 in 10 Singaporeans/ Singapore Residents have great difficulty in making ends meet and are unable to obtain the basic human needs of food, shelter, clothes, and activities and expenditures needed to live, 1 in 3 elderly in Singapore do not have access to proper nutrition, and close to 23,000 students struggle through malnutrition (Singapore Management University, 2020; Elangovan, 2022; Goh, 2020; Priyashini, 2021). For these, even a packet of no-frills and plain economical beehoon (vermicelli) costing $2, is a luxury item that needs these persons to dig deep into their pockets.
To this end, some individuals and organisations have responded by setting up Soup Kitchens, Food Banks, and Community Fridges around Singapore. The Community Fridges were launched in partnerships with the Resident Committees, by individuals such as Daniel Tay, and non-profit organisations such as Free Food for All, SG Food Rescue, and Fridge Restock Community SG. The first Community Fridge in Singapore was launched by MP Baey Yam Keng at the void deck of Blk 441 Tampines St 43. These fridges are restocked by volunteers, usually on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, and are open 24 hours a day, every day, to anyone who may need sustenance and food. The food is usually rescued from suppliers, merchants, and wholesalers and are food that may be excess stock, clearance stock, close to their expiry but still safe and edible, and food that may be considered too ugly to sell. (Fridge Restock Community, n.d.; Free Food For All, n.d.; Shafeeq, 2022).
Nonetheless, during the storm of the pandemic, the restocking exercises were stopped, and the community fridges became bare.
Some months back during the start of Phase III of the COVID-19 wave in Singapore, I conducted a mini social experiment to test the accessibility of these Community Fridges with the following criteria in mind: Ease of access – location is open, accessible, even by those with mobility issues, the location is easy to get to by walking or by public transportation, there is food and a variety of nutrition sources that is stocked in the fridges, and that I could easily retrieve food from these fridges without condemnation or judgement – so as to uphold the dignity of the person retrieving the food.
I randomly picked a Community Fridge in the vicinity of Toa Payoh as it was a location that was relatively close to where I live – for it would be difficult for the poor to access a Community Fridge that was located too far away from them, and I travelled to the location via bus. The location was relatively easy to find the help of map applications, and with general verbal directions from passers-by. However, it may prove difficult for the elderly to locate these fridges if they do not have access to smartphone technology, or even a smart phone, unless, they had been previously led to the places where the Community Fridges were situated. Even then, someone would need to write out the exact address and simple directions for them to get to where the Community Fridges were. The terrain may also pose a slight difficulty to those who are wheelchair bound, due to a lack of low angle and low gradient ramps.
Having taken some time to travel to the location at Blk 170 Toa Payoh Lor 1, with building anticipation that I could perhaps get a can of tuna or sardines, if I was lucky, I finally arrived at the Community Fridge. Imagine my deep disappointment when after a substantial walk from the Terminus, I discovered that the community Fridge was bare. All it had were 2 small boxes of millet biscuits, and a sad stalk of half wilted leek at the back of the fridge. I felt sad thinking about the many poor brothers and sisters who may have taken up courage to journey to the Community Fridges, after days of not eating anything, only to find that the fridges were empty, and who had to go another night hungry.
The reality of being wholly depended on donated or rescued rations also means that it is difficult for these who depend on the constancy of these fridges to obtain consistent nutrition that is good for their health and their bodies. The generosity of doners notwithstanding, if any, means that these recipients may still be malnourished if they are only eating donated biscuits or plain white rice, as their rations for the day are determined by what has been donated. Worse are the days when nothing has been donated, and there is absolutely nothing for these our brothers and sisters to eat at all.
What is a Christian’s response to this issue?
Pope Leo XIII writes in his encyclical, Rerum Novarum, that “Neither must it be supposed that the solicitude of the Church is so preoccupied with the spiritual concerns of her children as to neglect their temporal and earthly interests. Her desire is that the poor, for example, should rise above poverty and wretchedness, and better their condition in life; and for this she makes a strong endeavor.” (1891. 28) Pope Leo XIII continued to exhort the example of St. Paul: “Apostle Paul, though burdened with the solicitude of all the churches, hesitated not to undertake laborious journeys in order to carry the alms of the faithful to the poorer Christians.” (1891. 29)
A simple moral test that anyone can apply to gauge how moral a society is, is to see how the poor and the vulnerable are living and coping. The mission of Christ is incarnational. He is dwelling and walking about sinners, the poor, the least, the rejects of society, the lepers, the outcasts, and the disenfranchised. From Scripture, Jesus tells us, “As you did to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did to me.” (Matthew 25:40). We are reminded of the everlasting mercy of God our Father, and in like manner, to practise Charity as a Corporal and Spiritual Act of Mercy. A Christian’s priority is thus to move away from our insular and selfish outlooks, and to move towards the peripheries and beyond ourselves to reach out to the poor and the needy: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you . . . For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:36-38). Our love of God is reflected in how we treat our neighbour. For we cannot say that we love God, while not giving a care about the neighbour who needs help. A Christian’s mission thus consists of “going forth from ourselves toward our brothers and sisters,” (Pope Francis, 2013, 179).
Pope Francis continues in Evangelii Gaudium, “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid. A mere glance at the Scriptures is enough to make us see how our gracious Father wants to hear the cry of the poor: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them… so I will send you…” (Ex 3:7-8, 10). We also see how he is concerned for their needs: “When the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer” (Jg 3:15). If we, who are God’s means of hearing the poor, turn deaf ears to this plea, we oppose the Father’s will and his plan; that poor person “might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt” (Dt 15:9). A lack of solidarity towards his or her needs will directly affect our relationship with God: “For if in bitterness of soul he calls down a curse upon you, his Creator will hear his prayer” (Sir 4:6). The old question always returns: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods, and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 Jn 3:17). Let us recall also how bluntly the apostle James speaks of the cry of the oppressed: “The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (5:4).” (2013, 187)
As Scripture states clearly, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor,” (Job 34: 20-28) and again in Psalm 34: 7 “This poor one cried out and the LORD heard, and from all his distress he saved him.” The “poor” in this case refers to those who are materially poor and those who are spiritually impoverished.
Nonetheless, we are also reminded that we should not be carrying out charitable works for the sake of showing others of our magnanimity. As Matthew 6: 1-4 exhorts: “[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
As we go about our ministerial work, and our faithful duty as Christians, perhaps these questions should also give context to our mission:
- How can I feed the poor?
- How can I teach the poor to be self-sufficient or direct the poor to the right resources and interventions?
- How can I employ the poor/ create employment opportunities where the poor are given preferential priority?
- How can I remould my business with a preference for the poor? For example, can I run my café set up in the day, but at night transform the business to a soup kitchen to serve bread and soup for the poor of the neighbourhood?
- How do I live out the right examples in outreaching to the poor, and model these for my children?
- Do I know those who are poor in my community? How can I support them?
- In giving to the poor, am I giving the poor the best, and the things that I myself expect to receive, or am I giving them the clear-outs of trash, the things that I myself do not want?
- How do I dignify the poor?
- Am I waiting for someone else to care for the poor, rather than I?
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
Locations of Community Fridges:
Please click here to access a list of the addresses where these Community Fridges are located: Fridges | Fridge Restock Community SG (frc.sg) (Information is correct as of date of publishing this article.)
Elangovan, N. (2022, September 1). 10% of Singaporean Households don’t eat enough to stay healthy, some have just a meal daily: Study. (Updated Edition) (First Published September 13, 2020.) Today, Singapore. Retrieved 14, 2022 from https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/10-singaporean-households-dont-get-enough-food-stay-healthy-some-have-just-meal-daily
Free Food for All. (n.d.). Community Fridge. Free Food for All. Retrieved September 14, 2022 from https://www.freefood.org.sg/community-fridge
Fridge Restock Community SG. (n.d.). About. Fridge Restock Community. Retrieved September 14, 2022 from https://www.frc.sg/
Goh, Y. H. (2020, September 16). 10% of Singaporeans struggle to get sufficient, safe and nutritious food: SMU Study. The Straits Times. Retrieved September 14, 2022 from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/10-of-singaporeans-struggle-to-get-sufficient-safe-and-nutritious-food-smu-study
Pope Francis. (2013). Evangelii Gaudium. [Apostolic Exhortation]. Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved from https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html
Pope Leo XII. (1891). Rerum Novarum. [Encyclical]. Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved from https://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html
Priyashini, S. (2021, June 21). Hunger and Food Insecurity still exist in our gourmet paradise. The Business Times. Retrieved September 14, 2022 from https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/life-culture/hunger-and-food-insecurity-still-exist-in-our-gourmet-paradise
Shafeeq, S. (2022, August 6). Community Fridge Opens in Tampines for low-income families to pick up free groceries. The Straits Times. Retrieved September 14, 2022 from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/community-fridge-opens-in-tampines-personal-deliveries-for-those-with-mobility-issues
Singapore Management University. (2020). The Hunger Report: An in-Depth look at Food Insecurity in Singapore. Singapore Management University, Lien Centre for social innovation. [Report]. Retrieved September, 14 2022 from https://lcsi.smu.edu.sg/research/the-hunger-report
World Health Organisation. (2021). Fact Sheets – Malnutrition. World Health Organisation. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malnutrition – :~:text=Poverty%20amplifies%20the%20risk%20of,of%20poverty%20and%20ill%2Dhealth.