We’ve heard a lot about wasting food recently in the media. And there are a few ground up movements that aim to curb wastefulness and minimise what gets deposited into our landfills. On the other hand, despite the abundance of food, there are still those who food-insecure. Here are some things you can do, and also some things I hope the government will do in the near future.
I’ve had the privilege of living in various types of communities. While I grew up in a city (Los Angeles), I went to a rural university that had an on-campus housing cooperative for alternative sustainable living. Members of this co-op farmed and lived off the land.
I’ve also lived in a retirement community, in a farming community, and in a remote mountain town. And it was through these various experiences that I quickly realised that there is no one correct way to live. And that what we consider to be “food” or “waste” is cultural and community-based.
For example, a common Chinese snack is dried orange or lime peel. But most Westerners throw this part away. And many of us do as well. Then, ironically, we’ll buy this from a grocery store.
In the mountain town I lived in, we did not have a sewer system. And the landfill was at the base of the mountain, so we’d see it each time we exited the town.
There were quite a few “hippies” in this isolated town. And they learned to live off the land, and waste very little. Their kitchens were often filled with fermented/preserved foods or jams, from surplus fruits and vegetables. Most people either had an edible garden and/or raised livestock.
While I learned a lot during those years living in these various communities, it was only in Singapore that I put much of it into daily practice. Why? Because I lost the convenience of having a car. Having to carry everything was laborious. So anything I could do or make at home meant fewer trips to the store.
It was in Singapore that I started regularly making apple cider vinegar, kimchi, yogurt, sauerkraut, soap, and rendering fat (making butter). As I continued this journey to reduce food waste, I wanted to gain more knowledge on what is and what isn’t edible.
What is Food, and How Has it Changed?
Food is mostly defined culturally, and varies with each generation. Just 100 years ago, the majority of people in the world did not have electricity (it was only in 1879 that Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb). This also meant most people did not have refrigeration.
So what they ate looks and tastes very different than what we eat today. I’m sure some things they ate, we would not consider as food today. But this does not mean their food was unhealthy and not nutritious. It just means that we’ve changed our definition of food. For the most part, we’ve gotten a lot more picky.
Why I have to mention this somewhat tangential point is that when the government says “food waste is equivalent to about 2 bowls of rice per person per day“, they are referring to what most people in this age consider to be food. But if you count all the things we throw away that are still edible by us (or by our pets/livestock), the actual amount is much greater.
For example, most people would consider egg shells to be “waste”, but my mum used to crush them to fertilize her plants. And many people (including myself) have experimented with grinding them to make calcium supplements. There are hundreds of examples like these.
Whether you decide to utilize the so-called “waste” depends greatly on the amount of time and effort you are willing to put in. Sometimes it’s worth it, and other times, it’s just more convenient to buy the already dried orange/lime peels.
But in nature, nothing organic (meaning carbon-based) is supposed to be wasted. Everything is consumed and nourishing to someone or something.
SG Food Rescue
Even food that is culturally acceptable may not be sellable at the retail level. If it has some blemishes/defects or is too ripe, it is graded as b-stock. B-stock can also include foods that are too small/large and do not meet certain cosmetic standards set by retailers.
In the previous article on Freeganism, I commended individuals/organisations for their efforts in redistributing these items to beneficiaries that aren’t as picky.
One such group is called SG Food Rescue. They take these slightly imperfect or near expiry foods from wholesalers (from Pasir Panjang) to distribute to select charitable organisations, such as SKM Welfare Society and Beyond Social Services. Those organisations will then prepare the food for their beneficiaries, typically low-income recipients or migrant workers. Some of these organisations appear on this list.
I recently volunteered with SG Food Rescue to collect food from wholesalers. Unlike dumpster diving, volunteers will ask wholesalers for permission to take their unsellables. Many are happy to offload their “waste”. The whole process is consensual and law-abiding.
Here’s some photos of the b-stock foods we collected that day.
What Some Other Communities Do with B-Stock Foods
When I lived in the States, surplus/b-stock food from vegetable farmers was often sold to livestock (pig, goat, etc.) farmers or to animal feed companies (including dog and cat food manufacturers).
Some of the “more acceptable” food was sold to outlet/discount shops, like Grocery Outlet and the 99-Cents Store. These large nationwide chains also took in near-expiry items, day-old bakery items, and surplus processed foods and resold them to customers.
And, of course, some food was donated and redistributed to low-income schools, and to charities.
There were even companies that recycled used food items. My friend’s boyfriend, Ryan, had a business where he converted car engines to run on used vegetable oils.
All these distribution channels helped to dramatically reduce food waste (in the places I lived).
What Can You Do?
If you want to volunteer with SG Food Rescue or any other organisation that reduces food waste, please do so. They are always looking for more volunteers. Most of these organisations will still end up with a huge surplus, so they will also allow you to take as much food as you wish.
Can you volunteer with them as a means to get your weekly grocery foods for free? Yes, definitely. You can save on your grocery bills by doing this.
But for most people, this is not practical (if your only objective is just to get free food). Volunteering is a privilege, as it requires you to have excess time. And you are still trading your time for food, which is not unlike trading your time for money (with a job) and then buying food. The only additional perk with the former is that your time also benefits a charity and the environment. That’s a great perk, but there are other ways to be environmentally-friendly and save money.
For others who may be short on time, reducing food waste can be as simple as not buying more than you need. Or, when eating out, bring a container and take the excess home.
It can mean being ok with eating leftovers. Or taking more intense measures like learning to compost and ferment foods.
Here’s where the frugal mindset comes in. How can we allocate our limited resources (time, money, food, and other things) in a way that is purposeful and in line with our values?
Some Things I Do
If you want to benefit from surplus or b-stock food, check to see if your shop has a “reduced-to-clear” section. Often, these items are 50% off. More and more grocery stores are adopting this trend. If your local store has not adopted it, you can always talk to them or write a letter.
You can also make friends with a local hawker, and ask them to notify you of any surplus or b-stock items. A roaster hawker I befriended sells me all the leftover giblets at the end of the day for a very steep discount. These I would buy as a nutritious and tasty treat for my dog. Another stall owner sells me very steeply discounted fruit (including durian) that is a bit overripe.
The Future of Food in Singapore
We live on a dense, tiny island that gets the vast majority of our food imported. To say we are food-vulnerable is an understatement. One day, we may have a food scarcity emergency.
So it is good to keep this in mind when we buy food, and when we prepare food. It’s also good to be knowledgeable about what other communities/cultures call food, or what our ancestors prepared and ate. And to know what things are not edible or are unsafe to eat.
The easiest way to lower our grocery bill is to buy only what we need, and use every bit of it. Just a couple generations ago, humans ate mostly gruel. Now we are blessed to live in a time where we have easy access to food, electricity, refrigeration, and a worldwide distribution chain that allows us to get anything we want.
But with population growing at +1 million people every 4.5 days, there may be a time when food is not so plentiful. And a time when we regret just how wasteful we were.
I hope that in the near future, we in Singapore can also employ some of these redistribution channels previously mentioned. I would love to see a large store chain that focuses on selling near-expiry items and/or “ugly” fruits and vegetables.
So far, I only know of one shop and one small franchise that does this – The Food Pantry & ValuDollar.
I hope there will also be more businesses, like Ryan’s, that use what we call “waste” and turn it into something sustainable and productive.
Lastly, I hope more people will learn what our previous generations knew (what’s edible and how to prepare/use it), and not be so picky.
Let’s change the conversation about food. And talk about how we can be more sustainable.
Join SG Food Rescue
If you’d like to volunteer with SG Food Rescue, please join their Facebook group to sign up. I would highly recommend it. They are a nice, welcoming group of people, and they are always looking for extra hands. They rescue unsellable food from Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre every Thursday morning (9.45am – 12.30pm).