A volunteer who makes sure no food goes to waste

Updated: Mar 25

Have you ever wondered where unsold baked goods and foods go? Thanks to organisations like Food from the Heart in Singapore, these donated items from bakeries, hotels, donors and sponsors are distributed to those in need. Ai Kiow’s story lets us know that there’s something we can do to help.

Mention the words “food” and “good food” to a Food from the Heart (FFTH) volunteer, and you’re bound to get some interesting insights.  

“‘Food’ is a must-have to sustain life. ‘Good food’ is a nice-to-have that one can do without,” says Ong Ai Kiow, an assistant general manager in the telecommunications industry who’s been an FFTH volunteer for 14 years.

Ai Kiow’s reply makes sense

Especially when you discover what FFTH is about. A non-profit founded in 2003, FFTH works with bakeries, hotels, different donors and sponsors to receive their unsold bread and other food surplus, making sure that these products reach welfare homes, senior activity centres, and low-income individuals and families all over Singapore. They distribute toys and hold birthday celebrations too.

It’s an efficient process. “I help the FFTH Community Food Pack programme (CFP), where once a week, FFTH distributes food items to needy residents. These include bread, eggs, fruits and non-perishables like rice, cooking oil and canned food,” she relates. “There are about 70 families at the distribution centre I serve, and FFTH has more than 50 distribution centres islandwide.”

Ai Kiow walks us through her routine. “A typical volunteering session starts with sorting out the bread and pastries contributed by bakeries and hotels, and packing them for the families to bring home,” she narrates.

“I am also responsible for administrative matters, such as updating the recipient list and checking the inventory of supplies for food distribution, such as gloves and plastic bags. I will need to inform FFTH to replenish the stocks when they deliver the food packs. I also maintain the attendance record when beneficiaries collect their packs.”

No wonder she and the other volunteers are considered a warm and welcome presence. “The familiar faces of the recipients I see once a week when I carry out my volunteer work, the gratitude shown by them when I pass them the provisions… A simple ‘Have you eaten your dinner?’ and ‘Thanks for rushing down after work’ are testimony that the little I do is worthwhile,” she marvels, adding that the recipients sometimes surprise them with gifts. In fact, an auntie once gave Ai Kiow handmade beaded keychains to show her appreciation.

“As an FFTH volunteer, one of the easy lessons I’ve learnt is that it does not take much to give a helping hand,” she muses. “I allocate up to two hours each week for my FFTH volunteering duties. Commitment is needed to keep on volunteering your time and not having the excuse of ‘Too busy. No time lah.’”

There are challenging moments, though

“The tough things I have learnt to do is to be firm with the recipients, like explaining to them how some months we receive less provisions from donors and thus distribute less to them – for example a small pack of rice instead of the usual 5kg pack,” she recalls.

“Initially, it made me feel bad that I was not trying hard enough to help them. But I remember and also remind them that when FFTH first distributed fruits, each family was given four. FFTH subsequently doubled that number to eight. So we learn to be thankful to the sponsors and donors, instead of comparing monthly distributions.”

And then there’s the sad part. “Throughout the 14 years that I have been volunteering at the same Residents’ Centre, I have come into contact with many recipients who have passed on. This is a stark reminder of life – cherish the person who is with you now as you may not see them again.”

So how else has volunteering changed Ai Kiow?

Well, it has made her become more discerning and understanding, for one.

“In Singapore, majority of the people are fortunate and deemed not as ‘needy’ compared to Third World countries where poverty and hunger are rampant. Therefore it is not easy to be aware of food waste and hunger issues, especially for the younger generation,” she observes. 

“FFTH’s annual Clean Plate Campaign held in primary schools and Toy Buffet are good initiatives. The former helps to instil in the young the importance of not wasting food, while the latter allows them to realise that there are lots of less fortunate children around them who do not have the privilege of having toys to play with.”

There’s one other thing Ai Kiow has realised with her time at FFTH. “My communication skills have improved over the years due to my regular interactions with people, especially with the older folks,” she admits. “I have no issues starting a conversation with someone I meet for the first time.” It’s an ability she’ll value as she sees herself and FFTH grow even more.

Want to help? Food from the Heart (FFTH) and its volunteers…

• Collect and then distribute bread from bakeries and hotels through the Bread Programme.

• Provide rations to beneficiaries at Self Collection Centres via the Community Food Pack.

​• Help needy students and their families with monthly food supplies thanks to the School Goodie Bag.

• Distribute pre-loved toys and games to needy kids at parties, holidays, events, and FFTH’s own Toy Buffet through Toys from the Heart.

• Sponsor birthday cakes and gifts for FFTH’s recipients via Birthdays from the Heart.

• Redistribute food and household items in good condition but with damaged packaging or nearing expiry dates through Market Place.

A little goes a long way

Food from the Heart is at 130 Joo Seng Road, #03-01, Singapore 368357; tel: 6280 GIVE (4483); email: info@foodheart.org