It is a regular Thursday morning, and a shop stocked full of food supplies in the heart of the Old Airport Road estate has just opened its doors.
Its visitors are not panic buyers looking to stock up their store rooms amid worries over Covid-19.
Most are elderly rental flat residents paying a visit to Food from the Heart’s (FFTH) community shop to pick up food items under a new initiative to support the underprivileged.
Launched in February, the Community Shop @ Mountbatten invites beneficiaries to visit the shop and choose up to 12 food items each month for free.
One elderly visitor is Mr Guo, in his late 80s, who shows The Pride his groceries for the day – two packets of instant noodles, a can of peanuts and some fresh milk.
Being on social assistance, Mr Guo had been receiving rations from grassroots organisations for some time, but since the shop opened, he has been able to visit to pick and choose the items he wants.
With a smile, he says in Mandarin: “I’m not greedy. I just make do with what I have. I don’t come here all the time, and will only drop by when I need to pick up more food”
He continues half-jokingly: “I have everything, the only thing I don’t have is money.”
Open thrice a week, on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, the Community Shop @ Mountbatten serves needy households around Mountbatten. Beneficiaries are free to visit to browse the store, and sign out for food supplies as and when they like. Currently, amid the Covid-19 situation, the shop is maintaining its regular operating hours, while implementing the appropriate social distancing guidelines (only a maximum of five beneficiaries are allowed in the shop at a time) and contact tracing measures.
The community shop is manned by FFTH volunteers, one of whom is 40-year-old Jenny Poon. She is more accustomed to packing food packages for the needy at the FFTH warehouse so being able to interact with the beneficiaries has been an eye-opening experience.
Speaking to The Pride, she says: “Here, you’re actually able to see their reactions and it’s quite nice talking to them.
“Most of them are very appreciative. It’s good to see people come in, leave their homes to interact with other people, and use this as a gathering place.”
Poon observes that many of the beneficiaries who have visited the store have big hearts for others who share their circumstances.
“Even though they are able to take up to 12 items in a month, many of them are considerate, and they tell me that they will only take what they need.”
And in a reference to the current Covid-19 situation, Poon’s fellow volunteer, 35-year-old Colleen Kleinschmidt, says: “I think if people were hoarding, they would only take the biggest items or the most expensive ones. But we’ve not seen that at all. While shops outside were having their shelves emptied, we’ve still had items like rice and noodles available.”
Having moved to Singapore only a year ago, Kleinschmidt, who is Australian, has found volunteering at the store a meaningful way to get involved in the community.
“I don’t speak Mandarin or Malay, so it’s quite hard for me to have a conversation with our beneficiaries. But we all smile in the same language, and it’s always nice for me to see them smile when they come in and say ‘thank you’ when they go.”
This is one other important aspect of the community store’s role in the neighbourhood, FFTH chief executive officer Sim Bee Hia tells The Pride.
“Having the shop right in the heart of their estate makes it very easy for our beneficiaries to drop by. It’s a place where they can meet up with their neighbours and our volunteers.
“It also allows us to collect important data on what are the items most in demand, and how often they are picked up, which could help us to serve our beneficiaries better in future.”
At that time, our attention is caught by another elderly visitor who has spent the past 15 minutes cheerfully bantering with volunteers, asking them for advice on which items to get, and making small talk.
Sim, who is also a grassroots leader in Mountbatten, explains: “He’s here because he wants to talk to people. And this is a place where he can enjoy the company of others, and be treated normally, like any other customer, instead of being perceived as needy.”
Therein lies the beauty of the community shop. In addition to reducing wastage in food packs where not every item may be needed or used by the beneficiaries, the store affords them the power of choice to pick the items that they want.
“Some of the vulnerable can be quite wary of how they are perceived because of the stigma… Letting them have a choice in what food items they can get is empowering – they can choose what they want, and when they want to get it. It empowers them to make decisions,” says Sim.
“We have even seen the kampung spirit at work, where they try to help others like them. For example, earlier, we had a visitor who was here to pick up some products for her friend, who isn’t currently a registered beneficiary.”
While FFTH’s community shop is still in its early days, there are already signs that this new model works.
Sim explains: “We have a food drop where anyone can just donate food items as they please. There are times when we return to the shop to find that it’s filled to the brim, likely contributed by those who live nearby.”
There has also been an increase in applications from residents in the neighbourhood who wish to become FFTH beneficiaries, which she believes is due to people sharing about their experience at the shop with their friends. Also, due to the poorer economic climate, more people have also come forward to ask for help after losing their jobs. Over the past month or so, the shop has seen about 10 new beneficiaries.
“We made a conscious choice to furnish the store nicely so those who come can feel like they are shopping at a supermarket. There are decorations hand-drawn by an artist, and even a chiller donated by the design company we worked with which allows us to provide items like fresh milk, butter and fruits.”
In Sim’s view, the effort is well worth it, because it affords the underprivileged the dignity of being treated much like any other consumer able to make their own choices.
“Their circumstances are already so different from the rest of us. If we don’t nudge them up, they will just keep sinking because the gap will keep on widening.
“Can we solve all these problems with our shop? We’re not very sure, but we know that it’s a start, and we can start looking at a better model for us to give.”