Nichol Ng is the Southeast Asia regional honoree for the 2021 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.
If YPO member Nichol Ng has her way, The Food Bank Singapore (FBSG) — the highly successful nonprofit she and her brother founded nearly a decade ago — will go out of business in four years.
The organization is the island nation’s first and only food bank. It has a straightforward mission: to end food insecurities of all kinds in Singapore by 2025. If that happens, then Ng says her job will be done — at least in Singapore. She is also working to expand the nonprofit’s mission overseas by helping neighboring Asian countries like Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar replicate what FBSG has accomplished in the past nine years. “We’re in a better position than other countries to end food insecurity,” says Ng. “If we can help them do that, we will.”
A history with food
It doesn’t come as a surprise that Ng chose to focus her charitable efforts on food and nourishment and ending food waste. In 2007, she and her brother, Nicholas, took over Ng Chye Mong, a food distribution business that was started by their grandfather in the 1930s and later run by their father. When they took the helm, the business was debt laden. They digitized it and rebranded it as FoodXervices Inc.
Today, it is ranked among Singapore’s top foodservice companies with thousands of clients and annual revenues of USD60 million. FBSG felt like a natural offshoot of this. “It’s very close to our hearts,” says Ng. “If you start something that’s really close to what your business is about, you can also then get your employees and your team members to be engaged.”
Food is social. Food is about nourishing people’s souls. It’s not just about filling people’s stomachs. ”
— Nichol Ng, Co-founder, The Food Bank Singapore share
It was also a chance for the Ng siblings to give back. “When we were teenagers, our family went through some tough times. I told myself if I ever had the opportunity to clear my family’s debt and was able to restart my grandfather’s business into what you see today as food services, I would be wanting to give back in a very big way, wherever possible,” says Ng. “And that’s exactly what I did.”
The Ng siblings founded FBSG in 2012 with the express goal of reducing food waste and feeding the hungry. They started it with USD1,000. At the time, they worked with 40 charities. Fast forward to 2020 when the organization served 300,000 people and coordinated with upwards of 370 charities. “It was never meant to grow to the size that it is today with just me and my brother volunteering full time, soliciting donations, and then going out to feed the hungry,” says Ng, who is CEO and Managing Director of six companies, including FoodXervices Inc.
While many charities involved in food distribution are all about raising cash so they can go out and buy food to give away, FBSG uses a different, more sustainable model. “We connect families in need with the food donors and salvage all kinds of food,” says Ng. Salvaging means everything from collecting excess food at corporate events to strategically placing boxes in public locations that allow individuals to donate excess non-perishables.
Much more than a food bank
FBSG is very different than the picture most people have of a food bank. Instead of a standalone location with volunteers handing out bags of food to needy clients, it operates on a much broader scale. The list of services is long and comprehensive and continually evolving. There are vending machines that offer free food 24 hours a day to anyone with a food bank card. Some even have healthy, cooked-food choices that can be reheated in microwaves. The Food Bank Juniors Club teaches children ages 5 to 12 about food waste through activities and outings. Cooking classes on how to eat more healthily are offered in a demonstration kitchen. Food salvage programs allow items that would otherwise be thrown out to be donated. Fresh-food trucks traverse the island nation, and since the pandemic started, volunteers have been making door-to-door deliveries. A virtual food-banking app matches donors and beneficiaries in real time.
Supporting Singapore during COVID-19
The organization has been busier than ever during the pandemic. Ng says she was glad to be able to be there for the people who needed help during the lockdown when many charities were forced to suspend their services. Rather than using money to run soup kitchens, Ng reached out to restaurants and used FBSG funds and donations to pay for the meals. FBSG volunteers then delivered the meals door-to-door. At the pandemic’s peak in June 2020, they delivered 15,000 meals a day. Over the duration of the lockdown, roughly 1 million meals were redistributed. It ended up a win-win: food didn’t go to waste, and FBSG helped pump much needed money back into the restaurant trade. “They were all suffering, because no one was dining out,” says Ng. “So, the impact was quite staggering.”
Ng says she learned a lot during the home visits as they were something she didn’t get to do before the pandemic. “This was the only time that we really got to go door to door, have a chat with the people, meet the families,” she says. Some of the faces of food insecurity were different than she expected and crossed all walks of life. Some of the people were living in large apartments with big-screen, plasma TVs, she says, but still they were suffering — and in many cases too proud to ask for help.
Getting to meet and talk to the people she helps gave Ng a better understanding of the need for choices and good food for everyone. Just because people don’t have the money doesn’t mean they should be denied the pleasure of food, she says. “Food is social. Food is about nourishing people’s souls. It’s not just about filling people’s stomachs,” she says. “A bag of rice or a small chocolate bar may not seem like much to some, but to a hungry child, it’s everything. As a food bank, that happiness is something we want to deliver to the people of Singapore.”
One in 10 food insecure
Ng says that many people have a misconception about her country — and with good reason. In 2019, Singapore was ranked as the world’s most food secure nation on the Global Food Security Index. As a wealthy, first-world country, “everybody thinks that poverty doesn’t exist here,” she says. But statistics paint a different story.
One in 10 people in Singapore are food insecure, according to “Hunger in a Food Lover’s Paradise,” a comprehensive report on the subject conceptualized and commissioned by FBSG. “Of the people that reside in Singapore, regardless of whether they are foreign workers or Singaporean permanent residents, 10.4% feel the pinch of putting food on the table,” says Ng.
Before the report was released, there were no comprehensive studies, government or private, related to food insecurity in Singapore — and no plans for the government to do any. “This really frustrated us,” says Ng. It was hard for her to talk about “impact” when she “didn’t even have statistics on exactly what this food insecurity looked like.” Ng and FBSG raised USD250,000 and commissioned Singapore Management University’s Lien Centre for Social Innovation to do the report. A second part is expected to be released later this year and will include data from the time period covering the pandemic. “I want to see how the pandemic has actually impacted the most severely food insecure,” says Ng.
Making the time
As business leaders, it’s easy to feel like there’s never enough time in the day, says Ng. She knows the feeling well with her own four children under the age of 10 at home. But that should never stop one from stepping up. “If you find a calling or you find a sincere passion or some kind of a charity angle that you feel very strongly about, you will always make time for it,” she says. “To me, I see this charity like it’s one of my children, because if you decide to give birth to the child, you will never forsake her or him.”