As an avid volunteer who routinely goes door to door distributing food to the needy, Madam Lai Huay Lim once had to stand waiting outside an elderly beneficiary’s home for a long time.
Speaking in Mandarin, she tells The Pride: “I kept knocking on her door and calling out to her, but all I heard was some soft grunting. Slowly, she opened the door, and that was when I realised that she had crawled across her house to get to me.
“The home was shrouded in darkness and had an unpleasant smell. When I asked if she had eaten, she picked up a random food packet from the floor and nodded. But I was worried that she may have kept the food for too long that it could have gone bad.”
Encounters like these have only reinforced Lai’s determination to do more for people in similar situations.
And they affirm the decision she and her three sworn sisters took six years ago, when they started a food distribution network that provides free meals to needy residents living in Chinatown.
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“We started by giving out 100 packets of home-cooked vegetarian food each time, but as people spread the word, more requests started coming in from other rental flat communities.”
As the demand grew, the sisters realised they needed a central kitchen in order to produce enough cooked food, but lacked the funds to start one.
So, they came up with an extraordinary solution.
Smiling, Lai, who is in her 60s, says: “Our children were all grown-up and had their own families. So, one by one, we sold our homes to raise funds for a kitchen where we could prepare food to help the needy. Now, the four of us live together under the same roof.”
Today, the stall dubbed Mummy Yummy at Shenton House is operated by one of the sworn sisters and her children. It’s also well-known for offering discounts to cleaners and security guards, who find it hard to afford nutritious meals in the CBD with their low pay.
And with the support of the sworn sisters’ children and a network of more than 1,000 volunteers, Mummy Yummy distributes an estimated 20,000 free meals to the underprivileged each month.
Just this past February, they opened another stall called V4Vegetarian, located at the hawker centre at 503 West Coast Drive. Lai, who is in her 60s, is one of the helpers who runs the stall on a volunteer basis.
The stall operates on a system where customers are welcome to pay however much they like, with the money used to cover meals for other diners.
Those who are underprivileged can dine for free, and any individual or group that wants to give out food to the needy can also approach the stallholders for free packets of food.
Lai explains: “If we see any cardboard collectors or people who don’t have money for food, we’ll offer them a free meal. Some taxi drivers who want to help will also let us know in advance, and we will prepare packets of cooked food that they can distribute to the underprivileged folks they encounter.”
Describing the initiative as a “national service”, a Mummy Yummy representative recently wrote on Facebook about the new venture: “Never mind the early preparation of food for everyone, forget about salaries for us, what we need is to cover the costs for the stall and maintain it there. In order for this to happen, we sincerely seek everyone’s acknowledgement by contributing to our ‘free food fund’ on this project.”
Mummy Yummy also plans to release a monthly financial report on Facebook to be accountable to customers, said the representative.
Considering the overheads of running a hawker stall, such as rental, cleaning fees, and food ingredients, it may seem a bold move to leave it to customers to decide how much they want to pay, but everyone at Mummy Yummy is determined to see it succeed.
“However hard it gets, we hope to keep going,” says Lai, who starts work at 5am and helps run the stall during its opening hours from 7am to 2pm, Mondays to Fridays. After the stall shutters for the day, Lai spends her free time conducting house visits and bringing food to the needy.
“Many of our beneficiaries are elderly folks, and it makes me wonder how I would feel to be in their shoes in my old age. We want to treat them like we would our own parents. And so, it makes us feel happy to help.”
And at this writer’s suggestion that some may try to abuse the system, she responds with a smile: “I believe people are naturally kind. When our customers realise that they can use their meals as a chance to help other people, I can see that many of them are more than happy to donate.”
And sure enough, on the rainy Wednesday morning when The Pride visited the stall, a customer who only wanted to be known as Mr Lim was spotted slotting in a five-dollar note into the donation box while Lai was preparing his food.
Mr Lim told The Pride: “In Singapore, many of us don’t know how we can help the underprivileged directly. Since I’m already going to spend money on my meals, isn’t it a good thing if that sum can be used to benefit another person in need?”
V4Vegetarian is stall no. 34 located at 503 West Coast Drive hawker centre. For more details on how you can support the free food initiative, click here.