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Telegraph UK: Singapore’s middle classes turn to food banks as inflation bites

Telegraph UK: It has long been known as a culinary paradise, but in wealthy Singapore, middle-class families are now turning to food banks as the pandemic’s economic woes start to bite.

Job losses, stagnant wages and inflation have combined to plunge middle income families into unprecedented food insecurity. Charities warn the situation will get worse next year.

“We have a husband and wife who called us up and she was an executive and so was the husband. Both lost their jobs and you can hear the pain in their voice because they don’t know what to do, how to stretch dollars,” said Nizar Shariff, founder of Free Food for All.

He said in the initial stages of the pandemic, low-income families were hit the hardest as they lost their precarious jobs and had no social protection. During Singapore’s first lockdown last Spring, the number of people on his charity’s database suddenly spiked from 300 to 1,700 within 10 days.

But Mr Shariff said patterns of food insecurity were now shifting. “Right now, surprisingly, the numbers are increasing but they are coming from a different demographic. They are people who are staying not in rental flats but in purchased flats, middle income Singaporeans,” he said.

Mr Shariff’s observations have been backed by multiple food charities operating in a city state of 5.6 million that has little farming land and imports more than 90 per cent of its food.

Nichol Ng, the co-founder of the Food Bank Singapore and CEO of a food distribution business, said there had been a 25 per cent upsurge in food requests last year, but that supply chain issues would cause an even bigger problem in 2022 because of logistic shortfalls.

“The price of food has already gone up by 30-40 per cent and the logistics cost as well. We are gearing ourselves up for a great impact next year when more people will need to reach out for food aid,” she said. Salaries could not keep up with inflation on basic foods, she added.

“Chicken has gone up by 50 per cent in costs over the last 18 months – a basic staple in a multiracial country so it’s the number one protein… and I think it’s a matter of time for even the regular sliced breads that we eat to go up, maybe 20 or 30 cents per loaf.”

The pandemic’s disruption to global supply chains has caused a surge in container shipping rates, which is driving up consumer prices on goods around the world.

But Ms Ng said natural disasters and the climate crisis were also contributing to Singapore’s inflation. “To give you an example, pasta has gone up by 50 per cent cost price because of the global shortage of wheat,” she said.

“The second thing we are seeing is a backlog of manufacturing. And the third is electricity and diesel prices so some of the factories in China have stopped producing on a certain number of days… that itself is also causing a lot of problems with the manufacturing of canned food products.”

In 2019, Singapore ranked as the world’s most food-secure nation in the Global Food Security Index. However, according to The Hunger Report 2019, commissioned by the Food Bank and carried out by the Singapore Management University’s Lien Centre, a significant chunk of the population was being left behind.

The report concluded that 10.4 per cent of Singaporean households surveyed had experienced food insecurity at least once in the last 12 month. And two out of five of these households experienced food insecurity at least once a month.

The pandemic brought new struggles, said Ms Ng, as freelancers in the gig economy were laid off. Under its Feed the City initiative last year, The Food Bank Singapore distributed one million meals.

Food charities believe part of the solution lies in a proposed “Good Samaritan Food Donation” law, which would protect businesses that donate uneaten or surplus food from liability issues.

Free Food For All has launched a campaign to encourage more homegrown vegetables, while Ms Ng said Singapore needed to better control its food wastage.

“All households need to start looking at how they consume their foods and ensuring that they throw less because in Singapore we throw away 30 per cent of everything that we import,” she said.

A ministry of social and family development spokesperson said “the prolonged and wide-ranging impact of the pandemic has affected lower-to-middle-income households, similar to other developed economies”.

The ministry said the government had responded “decisively” and committed close to 20 per cent of Singapore’s GDP in economic and social support, including measures like financial relief schemes for income loss, and grocery vouchers worth £165.

Asked last month if he was concerned about inflation, Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, attempted to dampen worries.

“The central bankers tell us not to worry, it is transient, that they are tapering off very gradually and then things will be all right again,” he said.

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