When you’re a single mother of six and have no consistent income, regular and healthy meals can be a challenge. The best that 38-year-old Ms Rina* can sometimes do is rice with eggs and soya sauce or ketchup.
“She has no choice… She lives with her parents but needs to contribute to the household expenses and is often left with insufficient cash for basic needs,” said Ms Vithyah Vetrivell, Senior Social Worker at Yishun Family Service @ Children’s Society.
Ms Rina is separated from her husband, who does not provide regular maintenance for their children, aged between three and 13.
“Another single mother I work with, Ms Pam*, clocks in long hours at work to provide for her two eight-year-old sons. Her travel time is almost two hours, which means she can only start preparing dinner at 8pm,” said Ms Vithyah. To tide them over, her sons munch on whatever is available.
Food insecurity among children, which often shows up during interactions with families-in-need, is an important issue to address. That is why it figured highly during the volunteer training conducted by our Community and Volunteer Relations team on 15 May.
The causes are varied – from financial limitations and the lack of time and energy to prepare food, to work and emotional issues. What results is irregular and unhealthy meals, often laden with inexpensive sugars and carbohydrates, and less than wholesome snacks in between. Children end up with gastric problems or obesity and dental issues, not least because the cheapest food and snacks are not always the healthiest option.
Social workers and the community can do a lot to help.
Through their regular engagement with families, social workers understand their specific needs and circumstances, and can provide targeted and relevant advice and assistance. They also share information on food distribution drives, where families can get fresh produce, including fruit and vegetables, and where necessary, provide emergency cash assistance to buy these items. Food rations of staples and canned food, meant for meal emergencies, are offered as stop-gaps.
More ideas also surfaced during our training session, including on how the community can help. One way could be by donating meals from hawker stalls so that those in need can pick up a free or co-paid meal.
Co-paid ‘Tingkat’ or packed meals could also be made available more often to children whose parents face financial limitations and work long hours, ensuring they get balanced meals. Token payments ensure families feel a sense of responsibility and work to overcome their challenges. Jobs at community kitchens could also provide a source of employment to those struggling to find regular work, our volunteers suggested.
Food insecurity is usually closely intertwined with other issues that get in the way of regular work, such as poor literacy levels or health issues, whether physical or mental. Marital problems and the lack of family and social support also leave families vulnerable, and casework and group-based intervention could help.
Singapore Children’s Society remains committed to surfacing these issues and finding better ways to help, said Ms Vithyah. “The situations that create food insecurity are multi-faceted, but together, we can address them and ensure children get the wholesome meals that are essential for their healthy development.”
*Names have been changed to protect the beneficiaries’ identity