What is enough: food

A 2018 report by the SMU Lien Centre for Social Innovation, and a recent two-part series by Channel News Asia, have put food insecurity in Singapore under the spotlight. Food is undeniably a basic need—and how it ties into other needs, such as those for social participation, were extensively discussed by participants in the first MIS research project. The MIS team reflects further on the implications of recent discussions.

A basic standard of living in Singapore is about, but more than just, housing, food, and clothing. It is about having opportunities to education, employment, and work-life balance, as well as access to healthcare. It enables a sense of belonging, respect, security, and independence. It also includes choices to participate in social activities, and the freedom to engage in one’s cultural and religious practices.‘ – Definition of a basic standard of living, arrived at through consensual discussion among MIS research participants (see report findings)

In defining a basic standard of living, our research participants did not dwell on certain ‘survival’ needs–housing, food, and clothing. The definition merely mentions these briefly, before focusing on other aspects of human needs, precisely because they are seen as bare survival needs and presumed to be universally met in Singapore today. 

The lack of food, in the context of a wealthy city-state, implies a very high level of deprivation: a person who is unable to meet food needs is likely also unable to access other things that our research participants see as basic and necessary for living in contemporary Singapore. 

Consequently, the recent CNA two-part series highlighting food insecurity, drawing on a report by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, is extremely troubling. An alarming number of charities and volunteers have identified food deprivation as a gap they are trying to plug.  

“What is enough?” is an important question to answer empirically rather than through mere belief or ideology. 

What is “enough” in meeting food needs? 

Over a decade ago, in Parliament, MP Lily Neo questioned Minister Vivian Balakrishnan about public assistance (PA) for the most vulnerable. Pressed on the insufficiency of PA to ensure “just three meals a day as an entitlement”, the Minister famously countered, “How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?” This response implied strongly that people are just unreasonably choosy and that everyone does have enough to “live with dignity” in Singapore. (download full exchange here)

Underlying the MIS project is this idea: “What is enough?” is an important question to answer empirically rather than through mere belief or ideology. 

Anyone looking to ensure that people are meeting their needs—whether from the state or civil society—should try to answer this question with data. People with very limited income will first try to eat before allocating money elsewhere; thus, failure to eat enough likely signals failure to access other needs. The food insecurity situation among some people in our country therefore alerts us to the likely existence of many other unmet needs. 

So, again, what is enough when it comes to food? 

Details of food items, menus, and prices can be found in our report. Here, a few significant features to highlight:

Illustration by Jolene Tan
  • The total food budget for single elderly households comes up to S$92.07 per week, and that for coupled elderly households is S$189.77. This represents 29% and 35% of the weekly household budgets respectively. Food accounts for the largest share of the household budget. 
  • While the bulk of the food budget reflects an expectation of eating in, it does include some provision for eating out. Eating out primarily means hawker centres and coffee-shops, with occasional outings to restaurants. For the single elderly households, there are two days per week of eating out for breakfast, and three days per week of eating out for lunch and dinner. The elderly couples eat out twice a week for all meals.
  • The food budgets combine participants’ views with dieticians’ input in an iterative back-and-forth process. Across the groups, participants frequently mentioned “healthy” and “unhealthy” options. While they were aware of the health implications of food intake, the food options they suggested also reflected that choice and enjoyment are important. They acknowledged that meals sold outside tend to be less healthy, but also said that eating out is cheap, convenient, and a way to meet friends (enabling social belonging and connection).

We are currently conducting research to understand basic needs for households with younger persons. Their specific food needs will certainly be slightly different. Infants and toddlers need milk and some solid foods; kids in secondary school may have needs for food relating to their extra-curricular activities and more time spent with friends away from home; and working parents have an entire set of constraints when it comes to cooking versus eating out, as well as meeting the needs of multiple children who have different preferences. 

The way people eat–what, where, and with whom–matters. Humans have needs for choice and autonomy, and these are met when they can buy the food they want when they want it. We have needs for variation and pleasure, and that’s why our participants insist that food items must change; where people eat must also vary in a given day, week, and month. Humans have needs for social participation; in the Singapore context, such needs are met when we catch up with our friends at hawker centres, or gather to celebrate special occasions in restaurants with our families. 

When determining what is enough, apart from specific menus and budgets, these are our key findings:

  • What is enough is partly about meeting dietary requirements and partly about other personal and social needs.
  • Dietary requirements change with age and activity, and are also variant due to health conditions. 
  • In order to achieve and maintain good health, food needs to not only be filling but also nutritious. This is not just dieticians’ view but also what participants see as a basic standard of living in Singapore today. Another way of appreciating this insight is to say that participants saw food as a need which is both immediate and recurring, but also long-term in that it meets needs for health and wellbeing. 
  • Significantly, in Singapore today, food is imbued with extraordinary personal significance and social meaning. This was strongly demonstrated by our participants’ discussion of actual food items and eating patterns, and the enthusiasm and joy they brought to discussing food. The way people eat–what, where, and with whom–matters. Humans have needs for choice and autonomy, and these are met when they can buy the food they want when they want it. We have needs for variation and pleasure, and that’s why our participants insist that food items must change; where people eat must also vary in a given day, week, and month. Humans have needs for social participation; in the Singapore context, such needs are met when we catch up with our friends at hawker centres, or gather to celebrate special occasions in restaurants with our families. 

Given what we have found, it is a very profound deprivation to be deprived of food–not just food as filling stomachs, but also the purchase and consumption of food as an act of autonomy, and the eating and enjoyment of food as an act of social participation. 

The CNA and Lien Centre reports indicate a range in the people who face food scarcity. Some are old but others young, some immobile but many mobile, some with families and others single, some unable to work and others working. What they have in common, regardless of these other variations, is income inadequacy. This, in our view, should be the focus of solutions. 

We have learnt through our research that needs encompass not just material things themselves, but also how they are accessed. Choice, autonomy, independence, social participation–these too are basic needs. To live a dignified life, we have to care not just about eating, but how we eat, where, with whom, and on whose terms. In a small city such as Singapore, where food can be bought everywhere, most people are able to physically reach places where food is sold. The meeting of food needs, then, is primarily about income. It may not need to entail coordination and delivery to the extent that charities now carry out. Low wages need to be raised, wages for caregivers needs to be considered, unconditional basic income needs to be seriously discussed. 

In a city as wealthy as Singapore, food needs can and should be universally met. 

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