The beauty of ugly food

BY JUDITH TAN AND VANESSA LIU, FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE STRAITS TIMES, 07 DEC 2020

Fruit and vegetables top the list of food waste in Singapore, making up almost half of that generated by the commercial and industrial sectors that handle fish, other seafood and fruit and vegetables. In this third instalment of a six-part series on food waste, The Sunday Times, in partnership with DBS Bank, gets to the root of the issue. Judith Tan and Vanessa Liu join volunteers as they swoop in to stem the problem and give the produce a second lease of life, even as the food industry pushes towards zero food waste

As volunteers dart in and out of the 30 or so stores located at Block 16 of the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, grabbing boxes of unwanted fruit and vegetables, the call rings out from nearly every vendor or a worker: "Wait, wait... There's more!"

It serves as a pointed reminder of not only the generosity of the shopkeepers here, but also the scale of food waste in Singapore, especially of produce. Fruit and vegetables, which don't always take kindly to over-handling, are notorious for undergoing a strict process of aesthetic filtering in order to be sold in supermarkets.

Assistant Professor of Psychology at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Kenichi Ito says supermarkets place specific requirements on local farmers regarding colour, size, and shape of produce; and consumers are less likely to buy "ugly products" that they find unappealing to eat.

"In my opinion, it could be related to the 'beautiful is good' stereotype. People tend to ascribe positive feelings and good quality to aesthetically beautiful people, although their looks are not associated with quality. Such stereotypes could apply to fruit and vegetables," he says.

Ms Yeo Pei Shan, cofounder of start-up UglyFood, adds: "Singaporeans also tend to want everything (to be) perfect and value-for-money. Some of them even add to the problem by pressing or squeezing the fruit or vegetables for sale without much thought, turning fresh fruit into ugly fruit."

Food waste is one of the biggest waste streams in Singapore and the amount generated has ballooned by about 20 per cent over the past 10 years. The National Environment Agency (NEA) estimates that 40 per cent of food waste generated in the country is from the commercial and industrial sectors that handle fruit and vegetables, fish and other seafood.

According to market and consumer data provider Statista, Singapore imported 535,339 tonnes and produced 24,300 tonnes of vegetables last year. The country also imported 428,869 tonnes of fruit. During the same period around 744,000 tonnes of food was wasted, almost half of which were fruit and vegetables.

The mountains of produce deemed too unsightly for sale, the stacks of boxes containing still-fresh cabbages and lettuce left to wilt in the heat because there is no space in the cold rooms, and baskets of over-ripe bananas and papaya make up between 15 and 50 per cent of fruit and vegetables at the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre. They are destined for the bins every day.

Mr Tan Choon Huat, 50, a committee member of the Singapore Fruits & Vegetables Importers & Exporters Association, says: "After a long haul, the conditions of some of the vegetables have deteriorated so they need to be trimmed. Trimmings amount to between 10 and 50 per cent. As for fruit, those that are bruised or blemished will be discarded because they do not attract customers. That is less than 30 per cent of those imported."

Local farms like Yili Vegetation & Trading says there is a 30 per cent wastage from harvesting to quality-check packing - citing cosmetic filtering as the top reason.

"People only accept vegetables that are aesthetically pretty, that is, without any holes," says Ms Toh Ying Ying, business manager of Yili. Yili produces produce an average of 720 tonnes of cai xin hua, xiao bai cai, sharp spinach, round spinach and kangkong.

Blemished or not, most of the produce is still fresh and edible, and volunteers are giving it a new lease of life. No fewer than three groups, SG Food Rescue, Food Rescue Sengkang and Food Bank, are at the wholesale centre on different days to cart away lorry loads in their bid to save food from being thrown out even before it reaches the dinner table.

It is donated to soup kitchens and charitable organisations that feed the needy, as well as to homes for the elderly, and families in need.

The Sunday Times team spent a Saturday tailing volunteers from Food Rescue Sengkang as they collected discarded produce, and transported it to 10 distribution points across Singapore. They also set up a distribution point at Fernvale Link for residents to collect the saved produce. On that particular day, the group collected 20 wooden pallets of produce weighing more than 15 tonnes.

Food Rescue Sengkang volunteers packing boxes of fruits given up by wholesalers onto pallets at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, on Nov 7, 2020. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Founded by husband and wife team Derek Ong, 55, and Janet Lee, 43, the non-profit Food Rescue Sengkang was launched in May 2019 to help Sengkang residents save money on grocery bills and put discarded food to good use. The couple run Wizard Home Services, a local cleaning firm.

"Whenever we go down to the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, we split into two groups of volunteers. One will go to the fruit section and the other to the vegetable section. We comb the two sections simultaneously, asking for fruit and vegetables that are discarded. Sometimes we get more, sometimes we get less," Mr Ong says.

Ms Lee adds: "Not all vendors give us blemished food items. There are many who also donate quality items which are surplus and which do not fit into the cold rooms. Some will reserve items that are in perfect condition just so that we have enough to distribute.

"We are also lucky to have volunteer drivers from logistic companies who provide transport."

Mr Ong says: "In the beginning, there were not many volunteers, only a few friends were helping. Right now there are more people volunteering because they realised that this is for a good cause. After all, we are cutting down on food waste, saving the environment and helping people cut their grocery bills."

After collection, the food is sorted into cartons and distributed in estates like Fernvale and Toa Payoh.

Volunteers of Food Rescue Sengkang getting first dibs on fruits and vegetables salvaged from Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre before opening up distribution to residents at a pavilion in Fernvale Link, on Nov 7, 2020. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Ms Lee adds: "We do this to reduce waste and since the volume is usually way too much even to donate just to homes and other charities, we decided to share it with our neighbours.

"Being in a new estate, a lot of the sandwiched class here tends to fall through the cracks, so we decided to help in our little ways."

The group also collects leftover bread from bakeries on week days that is distributed the same night.

Volunteers from homes and soup kitchens collect the items from the distribution points closest to their organisations, but Food Rescue Sengkang does not restrict anyone from participating in its initiative, whether as a volunteer or collecting produce for their own use, "as long as they can accept that these are rescued foods".

As testimony, there were dozens of residents standing in two lines at Fernvale to get some greens.

"Derek and I are in this for the long haul. We are committed to cutting the amount of food waste here, which poses a serious problem, not only for Singapore but also the world. By doing this, we also hope to educate people that not all ugly fruit and vegetables should be destined for the bins. This way we can work towards zero-waste," Ms Lee says.

Catch a special episode of DBS Sparks - “A Call to Action”, which shines a spotlight on the growing issue of food waste, and is inspired by the social enterprises and NGOs that DBS works with to prevent food waste and redistribute meals to those in need.

9 easy ways to reduce food waste when dining out

1. Order only what you can eat. Start with less food on the table and order more later, if you need to.

2. Come back another day to try other dishes instead of trying everything on your first visit.

3. Ask for advice. Consult the server on portion sizes to determine how much to order.

4. Downsize your order. If you intend to eat less, ask for a smaller portion.

5. Swap sides. If a dish contains something you don't eat, request for a replacement when ordering.

6. Share dishes. Offer a portion to your dining partners before you start eating.

7. Don't rush to order more. It takes 15-20 minutes after eating to start feeling full.

8. Appreciate the effort that goes into producing your food by finishing everything on your plate.

9. Give your feedback to the restaurant so that they can improve the dish and avoid future wastage.

Where we are in this six-part series tracking food’s farm-to-fork journey

1. Overview

To understand the scale of the problem, 1,000 people were polled on what they know about food production, consumption and disposal here.

2. Farms

There is something fishy going on if, on a global scale, about one-third of all edible food, or about 1.3 billion tonnes, is wasted every year.

3. Wholesale

Volunteers regularly rescue vegetables and fruits discarded at the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre for aesthetic reasons or because of oversupply.

4. Retail

Four years ago, France became the first country to ban supermarkets from throwing away edible food. How far behind are Singapore stores?

5. Consumers

How much of the food in the family fridge ends up in the bin? Changing consumers' spending patterns can turn the tide on food waste.

6. Recycling

Dealing with the scraps after a meal is where you will find both scientists in lab coats and dumpster-diving food volunteers.

The Sunday Times and DBS are partnering in a six-part series to delve into Singapore’s growing food waste problem and its cost to families, businesses and the environment. #TowardsZeroFoodWaste

More on this topic: This entrepreneur is stopping food waste while doing good

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