How to get free food, part 1

If you could have an additional $400 a month, how would you feel?

Back when financial planning took up the bulk of my time, I was surprised at the lengths that people would do to earn a few hundred dollars more every month. Some would write a book. Some would give tuition. Some would put in a few extra hours every day to get a promotion and pay raise. Some would spend all their weekends at a side job.

So when someone I just met gave me a way to have an additional $400 a month, I jumped at the chance. And it was life-changing. He gave me one project to try out:

Ask your neighbours to give you their leftover food.

He told me that one of his neighbours was on public assistance (PA). PA is reserved for needy Singaporeans who are unable to work due to old age, illness, or disability. Back then, she used to receive $400 a month from the government, $200 NTUC vouchers, and $100 hawker centre vouchers. Being needy, she qualified to receive food from multiple sources, including bread from 7 different sources.

She was never hungry and, in fact, very often had too much to eat. So she would share the food with her neighbours, including this friend of mine. The food he received was actually more than enough for himself, and his two tenants, and he often struggled to close his fridge door because it was too full.

Now when I first heard this, I didn’t believe him. I mean, who would? Do you?

But I kept an open mind, and decided to try out what he said. Back then, I had 3 neighbours with whom I was cordial with. When we saw each other in the lift or in the common corridor, we would wave to each other and say hi. But we didn’t really know each other. Most people in Singapore don’t really know their neighbours, and we were no different.

So it took some courage to approach my first neighbour. One afternoon, I heard her wheelchair backing out of her flat with a familiar ‘beeee-beeee-beeeee’. I opened my front door and went to talk to her. I told her that I was doing a project and asked her if she often had leftover food.

She said yes.

I asked her what kind of leftover food she usually had, and what she did with it.

She said that she receives food from a charity twice daily, because of her advanced age and health. She also had little savings and proceeded to tell me what happened to all the sales proceeds from downgrading her property. She said that because of her illness, she is unable to eat all the food that the charity gives her, which was often about half to 3/4 of what she receives. But she did not want to cancel the daily meal because there was still some of the food that she could eat. The balance? She threw it away.

“Very gek xin (heart pain),” she said. She knew she shouldn’t waste food like that, but what choice did she have?

Could she give me the food she didn’t want, I asked. I had a use for it.

“Oh, you want it? Here, take this,” she put into my hands a packet of rice.

“Thank you,” I said to her.

“No, don’t thank me,” she replied. “I should be thanking you. Because you take the food, I don’t have to waste it.”

I thought about it for a while, then said, “Since you regularly have leftover food, how about everyday, when I come home from work, I knock on your door and you can give me whatever leftover food you have?”

She shook her head and said, “I don’t want to trouble you. Whenever I have leftover food, I will climb in my wheelchair and come to your flat and hang it from your gate. You put one hook there for me.”

Her response overwhelmed me. For the next 15 months, I would receive food almost daily from her. In addition, she would give to me all the fruits and food gifts she received that she could not consume. This included oranges, packet drinks, Milo powder, instant coffee, canned food, and so on.

The one I hated the most was the Yeo’s curry chicken, which apparently is often given to the needy. I hated it because the chicken was full of bone fragments. Most of the time I just heated it up and gave it to my cat to eat. I think charities should themselves eat the food that they give to the needy. No wonder the needy sometimes throw away the food instead of eating it.

Anyway, back to my story.

Encouraged by the positive response, I approached another neighbour. This neighbour isn’t needy. She stayed with her husband but rarely cooked. About once a month, she’d invite her relatives over and they’d talk through the night. She often bought them snacks to eat, but no one (except me) finishes all the snacks offered. So as the host, she was often stuck with a lot of snacks that she didn’t eat. She gave them to me.

She also had a lot of expired food in her cupboards which I asked her not to throw away and, instead, to give it to me. She knew it could be eaten, but nevertheless, preferred to throw them away and buy new ones. I don’t know why.

And finally, she had fruit offerings every day. I learned from her that fruit offerings can be consumed. She normally eats them, but often, especially on festivals, there’s just too much for her. She gave all these to me as well.

She once gave me a pomfret that she bought for Chinese New Year, but never cooked. Many people do overbuy. Then the food is kept in the freezer or cupboard until it spoils. Or it’s just kept. And kept. And kept. Then thrown.

This neighbour felt it was not good to throw away food, but what choice did she have? Now she had a choice. She could give it to her neighbour (me) who would happily consume it.

All my neighbours that I approached were glad that I approached them. For now, they had someone to give their excess food to. They no longer had to feel the ‘heart pain’ of throwing away food that they had too much of. And of course, I was very glad I approached them to. Because I no longer had to spend money to buy food.

With the money I saved on buying food, I now had an additional $400 a month. I was elated.

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