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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

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:

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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