In Conversation: Heather Chi, Food For All
Most people don’t experience hunger in food-crazy Singapore. A look around the perpetually crowded food courts and coffee shops around the island reveal that food is certainly abundant and that there’s a lot of food wastage instead.
But the youths from Food for All intends to change Singaporeans’ mind about that. Food for All is an anti-hunger youth collective that intends to bring everyone in Singapore who is interested in, and tackling, on food issues together in dialogue. Its main work revolves around conducting research – such as its annual report on “Critical Food Issues in Singapore” – and assista Central Singapore to do a nationwide survey on food rations in Singapore. It is currently looking into establishing a food bank in Singapore, for food suppliers to deposit their excess stock, to be redistributed to the community.
I chatted with the young founder of Food for All, Heather Chi, on social entrepreneurship:
Q. Why did you want to start something like this? Tell us a little about the inspiration behind Food for All.
You can actually read about my story on my blog here. Basically, I became very interested in food issues after recovering from an eating disorder and got myself involved in a community project distributing food rations to poor people in Singapore, and was quite stricken by the extent of hunger and poverty in the country. I did more research and discovered a wide range of food issues, many of which like food security, food safety, hunger and food wastage, are very relevant to Singapore and the region. Food for All is a community and a space I have created for those like me, in Singapore, who are concerned about these issues and want to do something about it.
Q. Tell us a little bit about yourself, your passions and why you think it is important to contribute back to society.
I call myself an incorrigible pursuer of happiness because it’s true! I find great joy in creating opportunities for both myself and others to fill social gaps using our best skills – be they in event organizing, research, writing, art…even Facebooking! And that is essentially what Food for All is about. I believe each of us would be much happier if we use our best skills to create the greatest personal and community value we can – and that’s what drives me.
Q. Share some of the challenges that you’ve faced so far with regards to the initiative. How about opportunities?
Challenge #1 is volunteer management. I have had quite a bit of difficulties managing the teams when team members (including myself) frequently fly overseas or have very busy schedules. Indeed, many people in the social scene today are the same guys attending all the conferences and networking lunches, and are involved in 347640559 projects! This challenge, however, has encouraged me to adopt a very different approach to bringing people on board. Nowadays, I ‘date’ everyone who wants to come on board Food for All – meet them over a cuppa to find out why they are interested in food issues and the organizations – as well as exactly what they’d be interested to be involved with and to what extent. I try to give people what they want – which I guess is pretty new for an NGO! This has really enabled me to get to know people better, and develop real friendships – which help cement longer-term relationships and commitments.
Challenge #2 – “Resources for the Small Fry”. There are quite alot of funds available for community projects in Singapore but you need to ‘get yourself together’ and ‘get a safety label’, i.e. you have to be registered as a society (or better yet, charity) with a respectable Board of Directors, independent auditors, etc. None of my initiatives are close to this stage – which has really forced us to ‘go guerilla’: (a) finding mentors and financers – including unconventional ones like cafes – with a sincere and strong interest in our ideas, (b) using open source, free software (Joomla) and popular social networks (Facebook) to organize the team and publicize events, (c) occupying cosy cafes as temporary offices… and building up real credibility through doing solid work!
Q. If there’s something in this world that you’d like to change, what would it be and how would you go about achieving this?
Bring the control of food production, distribution and consumption to the people! Few people realize how extensively these processes have been outsourced (97% of our food is imported from mass production farms in developing countries and developed countries employing seasonal workers from developing countries… and a majority of our local F&B outlets are staffed by migrants too!) and this leads to a disconnection with the land upon which our food as grown, as well as the people who’ve shed blood, sweat and tears to get this food to us. I’ve actually produced a relatively comprehensive food report with a list of things anyone anywhere can do, with respect to a wide range of food issues, to intervene in the current system and make a change.
Q. How do you think the current economic downturn will impact on Food for All?
Since the economic downturn and period of inflation, I have been invited a number of times to talk about food inflation, the implications of this and how we can help mitigate the situation – many people are concerned about the rising food prices and we’re actively trying to compile a directory of food rations programmes in Singapore, as well as places people can get free food. These are only temporary measures though – a longer-term plan would be to look at how we can move around the current disintegrated food distribution system with middlemen (especially large retailers) and their high mark-ups!
Q. Does living in materialistic Singapore make us insensitive to social needs? How do you think we can encourage more youth to contribute back to society?
I don’t think so actually. Many other countries that are ‘materialistic’ like the UK and US, have a large proportion of youth doing sincere and committed community work. I believe the problems are self-censorship and apathy, which in part come from the comfortable life we lead here, as well as fears about stepping out, breaking from the norm, making a change. More opportunities need to be opened to youth but more importantly, these need to be opportunities that do not compromise the ability of youth to live a safe and fulfilling life. At Food for All, we always try to make things exciting – try our 3am food waste escapades! – but we find Singaporeans tend to be quite conservative themselves!
Q. Any last comments you’d like to share?
Try to make maximum impact with minimum cost and effort. Haha this is my motto actually! Very Singaporean but it’s amazing how much you can get done sticking to this!
Heather Chi, founder of Food for All
Young Upstarts is a business and technology blog that champions new ideas, innovation and entrepreneurship. It focuses on highlighting young people and small businesses, celebrating their vision and role in changing the world with their ideas, products and services.