The Underprivileged Get Free Meals From Soup Kitchens, But How’s The Food?
I knew I shouldn’t have gotten another pet.

I barely had enough resources to feed one, but I went ahead and got another pet just because it was cute. Because of my irresponsible actions, Laserz_King93 is perpetually starving. Thankfully, neopets cannot die, and you can feed them for free at the Soup Kitchen in Neopia Central.

At the same time, as far as soup kitchens go, all I know is that they help feed the needy, and that they are not limited to serving soup. I had read online that the food served at soup kitchens usually leave much to be desired in terms of taste, and I was compelled to find out if it was true.

In my curiosity, I reached out to local soup kitchens, Willing Hearts and Free Food For All (FFFA), and asked if I could sample their food in the name of serious investigative journalism,  especially since Giving Week was just around the corner.

Also, it was almost the end of the month, and my bank account was nearly empty.

Willing Hearts:

Willing Hearts is a volunteer-based non-profit organisation that aims to serve the needy or the elderly who might have financial or physical difficulties getting a meal every day.

It is helmed by Mr Teh, a retiree who is now the President of Willing Hearts. I meet him at the main kitchen, situated in the Kembangan-Ubi Community Hub, and the first thing I notice is the massive space and the cooks scurrying around with hair nets on their heads.

Next, I instinctively reached for my 11B, instantly reminded of every cookhouse I’ve ever stepped into during my two years in the army. I just prayed that the food served at would taste more like “Western Wednesdays” than “Mystery Meat Mondays”.

The kitchen, where volunteers assist cooks with the preparation of meals.
The kitchen, where volunteers assist cooks with the preparation of meals.
800 kg of rice is cooked in these heavy duty rice cookers daily.
800 kg of rice is cooked in these heavy duty rice cookers daily.
Every day, beneficiaries of Willing Hearts receive a packed lunch of a carbohydrate (usually white rice), one protein (usually chicken as pork and beef are avoided by some religious groups), as well as two vegetable dishes.

Mr Teh tells me that Willing Hearts is supported by two pillars. The first is donations from the public, by which he means food donations. Because they can only cook what is donated to them, they can’t plan the menu until the day before.

The second is the help of volunteers, who arrive at the premises to start preparations at 5 AM every day of the year. Willing Hearts serves 6000 needy people each day, and as it only operates out of one kitchen, preparations have to begin in the wee hours of the morning in order to cope with demand.

Volunteers helping out.
Volunteers helping out.
On any given day, there are at least 150 volunteers who arrive either through organisations, of their own volition, or as part of their company’s CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) efforts.

From the chopping and washing of vegetables donated by trade unions or suppliers to offering assistance to cooks (the only full-time staff employed by Willing Hearts), the place is always bursting with volunteers.

After the food is packed, it is sent out by drivers in these vehicles to beneficiaries all around the island.
After the food is packed, it is sent out by drivers in these vehicles to beneficiaries all around the island.
Distribution points.
Distribution points.
On the day I was there, the menu featured heart-shaped chicken nuggets, stir-fried assorted vegetables, tofu with pickled vegetables, and white rice with a curry gravy slapped on top.

The main course.
The main course.
These were the same dishes served to the beneficiaries, and due to the sheer volume at which the food was cooked, I did not expect much.

Although the rice was a little dry and could have used a little bit more water in the cooking, the curry more than made up for it, moistening the rice and adding that bit of a spicy kick.

The heart-shaped nuggets were a nice touch, but left much to be desired in terms of taste. If a chicken thigh is gelato, these nuggets were whipped cream. There was so much air in the nuggets there was barely any meat, but least the batter was crispy and tasty. Otherwise, it would have almost been inedible.

The vegetables were stir-fried together with the neapolitan of frozen greens: peas, corn and carrots. It is hard to go wrong with a simple stir-fry, and so long as you don’t drown the dish in oil.

Then came the crowning glory of this simple meal: the tofu. I have never enjoyed a tofu dish no matter what it was cooked with, but this simple and savoury rendition of tofu with pickled vegetables blew my mind.

The tofu provided the base of the dish, sitting in a pool of mildly spicy gravy, accentuated by the intense umami of the pickled vegetables. The marriage of flavours propelled this simple dish to heights I would never thought possible for a tofu dish. Between this and the curry laden rice, I could have eaten at least three bowls of this flavour explosion.

VERDICT: 3 Out of 5

One of the more flavourful meals I’ve had in quite some time, apart from the fact that I needed more meat. In my opinion, the barely-nuggets simply fulfilled the criteria of having one protein in each meal, but just barely. However, there isn’t much that can be done on the part of Willing Hearts, as they are constrained by what was donated for that day.

Free Food For All (FFFA):

FFFA was started in 2014 by Nizar, a retired businessman who was previously in the shipping industry. Upon retirement, he wanted to give back to society, but was not pleased with how some of the charitable organisations handled the money he donated. At the same time, he was visiting beneficiaries of several initiatives which handed out groceries to them.

A common problem he encountered was that of a beneficiary having a surplus of cooking oil at home.

Observing a flaw in the system, Nizar realised that serving cooked meals was the best way to help beneficiaries. Aside from that, he noticed that in spite of the fact that there are several soup kitchens in Singapore, there was not a single one that provided Halal food. Not wanting to stop there, he even believes in empowering the needy, ensuring that help doesn’t stop after the beneficiaries take their last bite.

Nizar, second from right, helping to distribute food to foreign workers.
Nizar, second from right, helping to distribute food to foreign workers.
To achieve this, Nizar encourages beneficiaries to take part in the preparation of the food themselves, and he pays them a small amount for each packet of food that they help to prepare.

At FFFA, the pool of beneficiaries is much smaller than that of Willing Hearts, with about 1000 – 2000 individuals fed each month. However, this is because the food that FFFA provides costs more, and with a smaller number of people to feed, there can be more control over quality. Each packet of food costs $2.50, as compared to $0.60 at Willing Hearts.

Nizar also has to work around not having the infrastructure that Willing Hearts has. Without a kitchen, Nizar has had to collaborate with caterers and kitchens to prepare food for his beneficiaries.

Zorah Enterprise, the kitchen that I went to on a Friday morning, was one of those.

When I got there, two men were preparing biryani to distribute to a mosque, a weekly initiative organised by FFFA. Majid, the assistant manager or the premises, was scooping the biryani into the styrofoam boxes.

“You want to help me put the achar?” he asked, eyes gleaming.

Before I knew it, I was embracing the spirit of giving, and began scooping achar out from a huge bowl, putting a spoonful on each packet like a seasoned pro. That day, 151 packets of food were being prepared for the mosque. No prizes for guessing who the last packet went to.

The achar I helped to distribute.
The achar I helped to distribute.
My handiwork
My handiwork
Granted, 150 packets might not seem like a lot in comparison to the 6000 that Willing Hearts prepares, but they certainly could’ve been more efficient had they had more help from volunteers.

After the chicken drumsticks were placed in the styrofoam boxes, Majid then delivered the food to the mosque in a van provided by FFFA. Like clockwork, this happens every Friday.

Nizar tells me that it is often not the needy who take the food at the mosque, but rather, the makciks with gold bangles up to their elbows who snatch at the food packets, taking as many as they can hold.

Despite this, he persists with this programme as his hope is for people at the mosque to give him a call on the number printed on the styrofoam boxes, and offer to make donations. Unfortunately, he has not had much luck in this department.

“In these few years, I have only received two calls from people at the mosque. The first one was to complain that the food wasn’t good. The second one was a makcik calling to ask if the food was halal,” he shook his head, visibly disheartened.

Nevertheless, he does his best to ensure that the quality of the food is consistently good. And if you trust my word, it is.

Biryani, achar and ayam masak merah.
Biryani, achar and ayam masak merah.
Being a stupid Chinese man who has only experienced minority cultures on a superficial level, I was aghast when I realised that there was no curry in the Biryani. Wouldn’t that make it too dry?!

I could not have been more wrong.

Apparently, I’ve been eating substandard Biryani all my life, as I learned that if the basmati rice is moist and fluffy enough, you don’t need curry to drench your bed of rice.

The chicken drumstick was also one of the best renditions of ayam masak merah I’ve ever had. There were the right levels of spice, and the ideal amount of sweetness, all immaculately balanced in every bite of chicken.

There was only one downside, that bit of charred skin on the drumstick.
There was only one downside, that bit of charred skin on the drumstick.
After consuming a rather jelak meal like that, what better than achar to neutralise the intense flavours of the Biryani?

Verdict: 4.5 Out of 5
What more can I say? I’m a convert. From now on, I’m ordering all my Biryani WITHOUT curry. The burnt bit of skin was a shame, but you cannot possibly ensure that every single one of the 150 pieces of chicken is cooked to perfection when you only have two people in the kitchen.

It would seem that many of Singapore’s needy are already well taken care of by organisations like Willing Hearts and FFFA.

At the same time, this is just for one meal a day. How many of us would be satisfied with just one meal a day? I cannot even imagine what havoc I would wreak upon my colleagues if I didn’t have my eggs benedict every morning.

Ideally, a combination of the meals from both Willing Hearts and FFFA would be perfect for beneficiaries. However, because of dietary restrictions, it is not practical for these organisations to work hand in hand.

Like Mr Teh mentioned, the two pillars that these soup kitchens stand on are volunteers and donations. If you don’t have the time, you can donate resources. If you do not have the resources, you can always donate your Time, Talent, Treasure and Voice to different charities and causes during Giving Week.

As anyone and everyone can help in the simplest of ways, parents often bring their children to soup kitchens to help out. Even if it is something as menial as washing vegetables, every bit counts. If you don’t want to get your hands dirty, you could even help out with the administrative side of things, such as logistics or even niche areas like marketing and copywriting.

Little acts, when multiplied by millions, can make a world of a difference.

And what better time to explore your charitable side than during Giving Week?

Giving Week 2018 is taking place from 27 November to 5 December. Share your Time, Talent, Treasure and Voice to support the causes and issues you care about at the various activities and events happening islandwide, and discover how businesses, communities, people and non-profits come together to celebrate the spirit of giving. #GivingWeekSG

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