“People Give, Just Take And Eat”: Food Insecurity and Food Aid in a Public Rental Neighbourhood in Singapore

In COVID-19, Reports, Resources by Stephanie Chok

“Food is just a method to survive … day by day. … If you are talking to me about nutrition … I don’t think we people [in this neighbourhood] get all that. … [it] is going to cost us a lot. For us, in … this small community, we are not rich people. We are just blessed to have food, that is all.” (Interview, Rental flat resident)

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to increases in demand for food and financial assistance. Motivated by a mounting concern with the increased demands for food aid, Beyond Social Services embarked on a study to better understand the nature of food insecurity and food aid in a public rental neighbourhood.

Food insecurity, which occurs when persons have limited or unstable access to safe and nutritious foods in socially acceptable ways, is inextricably linked to economic inequality. In current contexts, the socially acceptable way of obtaining food is through commercial transactions: people shop for food in supermarkets, or purchase meals at food and beverage outlets. Depending on food aid provided by charities is a system relegated to persons marked financially disadvantaged—in Singapore, many organisations apply a means-test or use housing as a proxy to determine eligibility for food aid.

This qualitative study was conducted between July and December 2020, involving semi-structured interviews with 54 public rental flat residents, four stakeholders involved in providing food aid, and a focus group involving eight members.

Interviewees shared their decision-making processes when it came to the acquiring, preparation and consuming of food on a daily basis—they talked about what they ate, and why they didn’t; they spoke of sharing, of sustenance and, often, of deprivation. As parents, they were resolute that their children’s food needs took precedence over their own, and their accounts amplified the tradeoffs many grappled with in trying to balance tight budgets and feeding their families adequately.

The implications of prolonged and endemic food insecurity on residents remain a grave concern: food insecurity is a serious public health issue and is linked to increased mental stress and the development of chronic health conditions.

The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated food insecurity. Quality of life, across all domains, decreases as food insecurity increases: there is also a mutually reinforcing dynamic between these deteriorating conditions and food insecurity. Food insecurity in communities experiencing entrenched disadvantage can also extend beyond the individual and households to affect social networks and erode capacities for self and community organising.

The persistence (and growth) in food insecurity demands attention to fundamental questions about inequalities in our food ecosystems and the political commitment required to deal with the social determinants of food insecurity. Such efforts will certainly include food aid, but must extend beyond charitable food responses to allow for multi-scalar, collaborative action that shifts us, collectively, towards more socially just and environmentally sustainable food systems. Food insecurity in affluent societies poses important ethical and political questions that demand our attention and scrutiny: if we recognise the human right to food, access to adequate food should no longer be treated as a gift or act of benevolence, but a fundamental right and statutory obligation.

Read our report here now.