Food from the Heart, a nonprofit that tackles food waste and hunger, has thrived because it is run like a business. It is also an expert in logistics. After 13 years, it wants to do more and the only hurdle is funding, say chairman Ronald Stride and executive director Anson Quek.

“Food waste is a huge issue,” says Anson Quek, executive director of Food from the Heart (FFTH), a nonprofit that hands out food and care packages to the needy. “If we don’t tackle the problem, we will need another Semakau soon,” he adds, referring to Singapore’s only landfill, which is fast filling up. Last year, Singapore generated around 790,000 tonnes of food waste — that is equivalent to each Singaporean throwing away two bowls of food each day. Of that, only 13% was recycled, according to the National Environment Agency.

Even with all that food chucked away, there are people struggling to get enough to eat — senior citizens without incomes, families where the sole breadwinner has become chronically ill or disabled, or single- parent families. For the last 13 years, FFTH has been stepping in to help fill the gap, collecting unsold bread from bakeries and hotels, and delivering them to low-income folks and welfare homes island-wide.

FFTH has grown well beyond its now-famous daily bread runs. Today, the charity supplies packages containing non-perishable food and household items at 35 self-collection centres in HDB estates and monthly food goodie bags for kids on financial assistance at 28 schools. “We started [the school programme] when we realised that, after working at the grassroots level, lots of kids do not attend school regularly,” says Quek.

FFTH has also branched out with Toys from the Heart, where toys are given to deserving youngsters, and Birthdays from the Heart, where birthdays for disadvantaged kids and the elderly are celebrated. With new cold-room facilities, it is now moving into supplying fresh food such as fruit, dairy and meat to vulnerable families. The Singapore charity supports over 25,000 beneficiaries in total.

FFTH’s reach and scale today is beyond anything its founders dreamt of at the start. The nonprofit came about after Christine and Henry Laimer, an Austrian couple residing in Singapore, read about bakeries dumping large amounts of leftover baked goods each day. What a waste, they thought, and set in motion a food aid initiative. Their initial bread run in February 2003 began with 120 volunteers.

Today, the bread programme has an active pool of 1,700 volunteers, of which almost a third have been with FFTH since its first three years. The charity has about 5,000 volunteers, including those who come in on corporate social responsibility programmes to help pack food and toys for redistribution. “We’re probably the nonprofit with the biggest pool of active volunteers,” says its chairman Ronald Stride, adding that FFTH has had no trouble attracting or retaining volunteers.

Tightly managed
FFTH has thrived where other efforts in food distribution and food banking have stumbled, for a number of reasons. The first is that the nonprofit is very tightly managed. “My philosophy is that you run a charity like a business,” says Stride. “We know where our cash is going, we have a budget and we watch our finances very closely.”

Stride has been chairman of FFTH since November 2011, after the Laimers returned to Austria and gave up their roles in the nonprofit. A past president of the American Association of Singapore, Stride spent most of his career at management consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton Holding.

Operationally, the charity pivots on well-crafted logistics. That has been the case from day one as the Laimers were in logistics and were particularly experienced in warehousing. With a 5,000 sq ft warehouse in Joo Seng Road as its nexus, FFTH has built a model for procuring, transporting and managing inventory, and tracking deliveries. “FFTH is about logistics. It’s how you plan your routes, your network, how you move things around,” says Quek, who comes from the logistics industry himself. He has been on FFTH’s board since its inception.

Coordinating the bread run alone calls for a robust tracking system and careful planning. Collection and delivery are done on the same night. Recipients are told to store the baked goods in a fridge and to consume them the next day. The system has evolved to include an app that allows volunteers to register for routes at their convenience and view routes that need last-minute coverage if someone drops out.

As the charity has grown, it has also evolved into an “aggregator”, Stride notes. Last year, it tied up with supermarket chain NTUC FairPrice in its food waste reduction drive, where it collects packaging-damaged items and those close to expiry from NTUC’s 130 branches nationwide. These are then sorted at FFTH’s warehouse and redistributed to other charities and its self-collection centres.

No regular funding
FFTH has also built up a reputation for accountability to its donors, whether they donate food or money. It ensures that donated food is not re-sold by beneficiaries — a complaint that arose with previous attempts at food distribution — by having representatives check that the donated bread is consumed appropriately.

The charity also routinely communicates with its donors and discloses financial information, notes consultancy Bain & Co in a 2015 study titled “Unlocking the Power of Singapore’s Nonprofits”. “An annual summary of activities and independent audit, detailed in its annual reports, ensure both reliable financial accounting and documentation for tax deductions, all of which build trust with its large, diverse and growing group of donors and partners,” it says. This longstanding commitment to transparency has enabled the charity to boost its fund-raising as well as recruit more volunteers, Bain & Co adds.

Despite that, fund-raising is not easy, especially in the current climate, says Stride. There is no lack of competition for the charity dollar with more and more galas, events and charities in Singapore each year. “We are all going after the same set of people. And we are also in competition with the government,” he notes, pointing to groups like the Community Chest, which is the fund-raising arm of the National Council of Social Service.

FFTH does not get any regular funding. Although it has had continued support from givers such as the Tote Board, Lee Foundation and NTUC Foundation, it knows it has to go after more companies and individuals and do more events. The charity needs to raise at least $3 million annually — currently, the single largest source of cash comes from its annual Passion Ball. Each raises proceeds of $550,000 to $650,000 after expenses.

FFTH needs the money as it would like to do more to alleviate hunger and cut food waste. “Singapore is a big city with a soft underbelly. There are people living hand to mouth,” Stride says. In a study commissioned by FFTH last year, Bain & Co estimates that there are 105,000 households, or about 12% of Singaporean HDB households, who live on a household income of less than $1,500 a month. Quek says FFTH currently reaches out to only a fraction of these low-income residents and would like to support as many of them as it can.

“We do see a lot of middle-income families coming to us where the sole beneficiary has been retrenched and they don’t have savings. Or, they may be critically ill, which can plunge them into the poverty cycle quickly,” he notes. FFTH also sees a lot of skip-generation households, where grandparents end up caring for children whose parents typically are in jail, rehabilitation or have remarried and started new families. “The only constraint we have [to growing] is fund-raising and we’re putting in a lot of effort behind that,” says Stride.

Volunteers are its backbone
What it does not have trouble getting is volunteers. “Our volunteers feel very connected and very proud of what they do,” says Stride, noting that volunteers at their self-collection centres are often from that estate and feel gratified that they are able to help their neighbours. The 1,700-strong volunteer pool on its bread programme, meanwhile, ensures that there is always back-up for those who are unable to fulfil their obligations.

Michael Choong is one of FFTH’s pioneer volunteers. Since 2003, he has been delivering bread to beneficiaries at Lions Home for the Elders at Bedok, Thong Teck Home for Senior Citizens, and the Balam self-collection centre. He does the bread run once a week, from about 9.30pm till 11pm. “It does not take much of my time and the reward for me is the appreciation from the recipients,” he says.

“It may sound very mundane but I feel a sense of satisfaction,” adds another longtime volunteer, Catherine Tan. “It’s really sad to waste food and I’m glad to be able to help the needy,” says Tan, who has been doing the bread run for 13 years. There is also a group of about 35 taxi drivers who collect bread from outlying areas, such as Sunshine’s factory in Senoko, which donates 400 to 500 loaves a day.

Faithful volunteers like these are the sort of people that founder Christine Laimer plans to reconnect with on her next visit to Singapore. “I feel extremely proud of the progress of FFTH,” she tells Options via email. FFTH has truly evolved, she notes, pointing to the new sponsors it has amassed over the years, improvements in software for deploying volunteers and its warehouse enhancements.

Her advice to anyone who has an idea to better the lives of fellow Singaporeans is to just do it. “If I had sat too long thinking about the consequences, the window of opportunity to gather so many like-minded Singaporeans to save bread from the incineration plant would have passed by,” she says. Perfectly edible food that would have added to Singapore’s waste problem is now making life a little more palatable for thousands of down-at-heel people across the city state.


FEEDING MORE THAN JUST A BODY
Food from the Heart runs several community outreach services, namely:

Bread programme (started February 2003)

  • Daily collection and distribution of bread from 115 bakeries and hotels with the help of 1,700 volunteers.
  • Average quantity of bread distributed each month is 28,000kg or 1,400 supermarket trolleys.
  • Supports over 15,000 beneficiaries each month from 156 welfare homes, needy families and individuals.
Self-collection centres (started June 2003)

  • Thirty-five centres island-wide where beneficiaries can pick up bread each week, and non-perishable food items (such as canned food, rice, oil, noodles and beverages), toiletries and household items each month.
  • Run in partnership with Residents’ Committees, Family Service Centres and Senior Activity Centres, with a reach of over 5,700 beneficiaries per month.
Food goodie bag programme (started June 2004)

  • Monthly distribution of essential food items from teachers to parents of 50 of the most needy students from 28 neighbourhood schools.
  • A standard food goodie bag comprises 10kg of rice, 2l of oil, canned food, Milo, etc, valued at $55.
  • Serves more than 5,000 beneficiaries each month.
Toys from the Heart (started November 2004)

  • Collection and distribution of pre-loved and new toys to disadvantaged children and an annual carnival.
  • More than 8,000 toys are given out annually to over 4,000 children.
Birthdays from the Heart (started December 2004)

  • Monthly birthday parties for disadvantaged children and the elderly.
  • Over 900 beneficiaries from nine welfare homes and centres are under the programme.
Sunita Sue Leng was formerly an associate editor at The Edge Singapore.

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 749 (Oct 10) of The Edge Singapore.