Food security – Definitions and what it means for Singapore

Continuing from the previous post on the Green Drinks panel, I have a look here at a definition of food security, and then ask one of our panellists, Abhishek, for his opinion of what food security locally means.

This definition has been proposed by a group of scientists working in food and agriculture systems for inclusion in the UN FAO’s upcoming Agroecology and its Innovations report, discussed at the UN High Panel of Experts forum. (see the scientists’ Comment, and other comments in a public consultation here).

Proposed by transdisciplinary team of scientists in their comment to the FAO High Level Panel of Experts

Food security’s 5 As, according to Rocha (2009):

  • Availability – Sufficient food for all people at all times.
  • Access – Physical and economic access to food for all at all times.
  • Adequacy – Access to food that is nutritious and safe, and produced in environmentally sustainable ways.
  • Acceptability – Access to culturally acceptable food, which is produced and obtained in ways that do not compromise people’s dignity, self-respect or human rights.
  • Agency – The policies and processes that enable the achievement of food security.
  • …[A]dequacy includes environmental sustainability and food quality. It also underlines cultural appropriateness, an underrecognized aspect of food security.


Cecilia Rocha (2009), the researcher who first put forward this definition, puts it this way:

The last piece of the food security puzzle is that adequate food should be produced and accessed in ways that do not compromise people’s dignity and self-respect. Shared food fulfills this condition when people feel reciprocity in the sharing. When food, however, is donated rather than shared, the reciprocity is broken. Food aid, through international donations, food banks, and charitable drives, while necessary for the survival of so many people, is one of the clearest indicators of food insecurity. In market economies, accepted, dignified ways of accessing food is often through markets. But when markets fail, the dignity and human rights of many people are put in jeopardy. (p. 9) 

Rocha (2009) goes on to talk about food security as a public good: that is, as non-reducible (there is no such thing as competition for the same resource, where someone else will reduce the amount of the good you can use) and non-exclusive (when I use it, you can also still use it).

The public-good nature of food security can be seen in its many public-good components. Environmental quality and food safety are examples of clear public goods. And while nutritious foods and healthy diets can be rival and exclusive (private goods), their insufficiency can create significant consequences for public health (a public good), through in- creased social and economic costs of malnutrition and diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.

Traditionally, the solution for the absence of efficient markets for public goods has been to have these goods produced and delivered by governments. As we have seen in the case of environmental protection, however, many innovative policies such as the facilitation of new markets, are being attempted. This new approach allows for partnerships among governments, private sectors, non-governmental organizations, and communities to devise ways in which public goods can be produced and delivered. Free markets will not generate efficient quantities of public goods. But that does not mean that public goods can only be produced and delivered by governments. (pp. 16-7)

As Abhishek points out later, the“many helping hands” taken by the government to social welfare in Singapore is one attempt to more evenly distribute the provision of public goodsamongstmultiple actors—educators,social enterpreneurs, for-profit enterprises. Good food gone to waste and good people gone to waste are not such different problems. They are products of a similar economic logic of privatisation and exclusive access we place on our food logistics system, and social welfare system, and we are just beginning to see how they can be addressed together.

So, I’ll conclude my moderating role with a proposal, or food for thought: that cultivating agency in the food system reduces the overall cost to social welfare and waste disposal, and increases innovation, imagination, and a greater sense of fun. Such agency contributes to greater food security, and includes everyone: policy, business, civil society and social enterprise, scholarship, and on-the-ground initiatives.

What it means for Singapore: Thoughts from Abhishek

How many ways can we make and serve the same food item? Vegan Pizzas made with love and salvaged vegetables from Jurong market, with participants at Bold at Work early this month.

A key component of food security is not only having access to enough food resources in all its diversity to cater for varying dietary needs of our residents, but also identifying the underserved so that they don’t go hungry. One of the key challenges is the issue of dignity – even the residents living in Public Rental Schemes (PRS) would say it’s not me who needs help. It takes a lot for people to say they need help.

Secondly, not all the needy live in the rental flats. Singapore has a small presence of needy who are homeless– some out of their own choice and some because they are excluded from the PRS system. It is indeed difficult to identify them and often it’s our luck if we can find them. My fear is that there are some who have gone completely unnoticed.

Thirdly, food security should take ownership of making our residents healthy – this could be in terms of having brown rice options available in most hawker centers or better designing calories mapping for each resident – sometimes people don’t know how much they are having.

Lastly, is restoring our connection around food with all of us citizens. I think like many issues in S’pore these issues do not strike a chord with the citizens because we feel it is someone else’s responsibility to deal with it. We live in a systems bubble – outsourcing our needs to various institutions and as such do not feel ownership with what’s around us. This ties in the abundant mindset Daniel mentioned, as a move away from the scarcity mindset. This is especially hard to design because what will then be the associated practices that comes with this connection – could it be everyone’s involvement in a community garden? We can’t mandate everything in S’pore like NS for instance, so what is the middle ground here of agency among all of us towards the issue?



Thanks to suggestions and feedback from Olivia and Abhishek, who helped to improve this piece.

Abhishek Bajaj works as a Community Worker with a charity that serves communities living in Public Rental Scheme housing. His work focuses on creating self-organising communities that takes ownership of its resources and issues in rental flats of Ang Mo Kio.

Prior to this, Abhishek served as a Designer at ThinkPlace Singapore, a strategic design consultancy. Abhishek graduated with a degree in Engineering Systems and Design from Singapore University of Technology and Design.

He has studied and designed for social issues around vulnerable populations such as the urban poor in Singapore, malnourished in Nepal, refugees in South Asia.


Rocha, Cecilia. 2007. “Food Insecurity as Market Failure: A Contribution from Economics.” Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. doi:10.1300/J477v01n04_02. PDF here: Food Insecurity as Market Failure A Contribution from Economics

Comment by transdisciplinary team of scientists working in food and agriculture systems:

Plants on Air – Venice Biennale Public Programme

Design appreciation for all: Venice Biennale Public Programme (SG)

Frontliners in Action

25 March 2017

Live & Love Green

For this, we presented a short talk and Plants On Air: Live Recording of stories about edible greens used in the kitchen. We were part of this event together with friends: Faiz, representing TANAH, and Angel of Goldhill Community Garden.

Why “Plants On Air”?

A selection of our recordings are posted here. We plan to continue collection, and to show them at a later opportunity.

Gardening in Toronto: Across Ages and Cultures

In late June, I had the fortune of attending a tour of urban gardens in Toronto, conducted by the Toronto Urban Growers. This was a day before the Scarborough Fare, which I was also attending (and which is the subject of another post!).


We visited 4 gardens by bus, subway and walking–lots of walking and talking! I took lots of photos, so let’s zip through what I saw.


Garden #1: Ryerson University’s Urban Farm

A view of the skyline, and no exhaust fumes from neighbouring malls!
A view of the skyline, and no exhaust fumes from neighbouring malls!


Hakurei turnips, fresh and SUPER crunchy - we got to try one each!
Hakurei turnips, fresh and SUPER crunchy – we got to try one each!


Garden Background

You might not be there but a 360 degree view should do part of the trick!
You might not be there but a 360 degree view should do part of the trick!
  • With the passing of a new by-law by the Toronto City Council, all buildings over 6 stories and 2000 square feet now have to have a green roof. Rrun off into the sewage system was getting so bad that they had to make garden plots mandatory.
  • Seeds travel by birds, so the roof was colonised by natural spontaneous vegetation.
  • Ryerson had a group of people and students who worked cross faculty to identify underutilised spaces, they were invited to also look at roof top spaces. They started with a 100 sqaure foot plot (with the help of some engineers).


Garden Horticulture

  • Farm size: Quarter of an acre
  • Sheet mulching first – let weeds grow to knee length, and cut and covered with tarp.
  • Made raised beds and cut paths. Soil went from 6 inches to 10.
  • 2 inches of compost are added every year.
  • 30 inches with 18 inch path, following the concept of Human Scale agriculture (Quebec based Jean Martin-Fortier, with his Acre and a half farm that makes a 100,000 dollars without tractors.
  • Grew vegetables – they grow better here than on the ground, maybe because the weeds have been growing and dying here and the soil is more alive – in that the bacteria on the roots of soil (rhizosphere), in the top 2 inches of soil is more alive. Sheet mulching means you keep the soil layer intact which is better for the soil.
  • 5 year crop rotation. Each section is one plant family. Plant families share the same pests and diseases. They also share similarities in how they use the soil. Legumes – beans and peas Nitrogen fixers. Clover as a cover crop. 15 to 20 degree Celsius. When it gets colder- they grow winterlife (which, I just realised, is recreational cannabis!) which scavenges nitrogen.
  • Also grown: Borage, nasturtium, kale, calendula


About the Green Roof

  • After the 50s, most modern buildings are built with less infrastructure. Green roof has to have less stuff on top and higher load bearing capacity).
  • Green roof – water roofing membrane (geotex, dimple board, rocks, roof membrane – usually needs to be changed every 10 years but with green roofs some in Germany are 100 years and going)
  • Safety for humans working on it is paramount.



Ryerson Farmers Market, Wednesdays, street level.
Ryerson Farmers Market, Wednesdays, street level.
  • They are a market garden – that means they go to market.
  • CSA model: 25 dollars a year for members. Member farmers pay 5 or 10, and work a few hours or days a week.
  • Once a week, 30 CSA members help on the farm. Same complexity as a 1 or 5 acre farm.
  • Member farmers are students and staff. The staff can cross the street and show up to get something. The students come during exams because they want to be here. It’s de-stressing to work on the farm.


Check them out here.


Garden #2: Allan gardens

Allan Gardens worked with architects to create gabion boxes capable of storing upcycled materials. Nifty and pretty! Great design in our opinion.

Allan Gardens worked with architects to create gabion boxes capable of storing upcycled materials. Nifty and pretty! Great design in our opinion.



Garden Background

  • Managed by a coordinator at Building Roots, the garden came together around multiple moving components and eventually settled around 13 groups, a conservatory where events could be held, and the concept that it should be a public space open to all. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s inspiring to see how these threads have come together.
  • Greenhouse from University of Toronto where some food plants are grown.
  • Building Roots worked with a group to design the space, including Friends of Allan Gardens.
  • Building Roots tries to collaborate with developers and others to do projects that one can’t do alone. 13 different groups have adopted the plot. There is a club with homeless men, an after school programme, a people with aids group. MDPs office.
  • Decided to have a presence in the park NOW, rather than wait for longer term plans.


Garden #3: Spruce Court Public School

Managed by Green Thumbs




Green Thumbs started with the garden when they realised the teenagers who had started the garden didn’t know what they were doing. Strawberries are planted outside to encourage people to pick. There is a lot of taking but they are sure it’s by people who need the food. They have a full time crew, 6 jobs paid for by the federal government under a summer programme that is part of the community engagement strategy (harvesting and planting, youth rotate and run programmes for the community). 


Garden #4: Regent Park gardens

And last but not least, possibly our favourite for the work it does in a historically rich and challenging place.. but it’s hard to pick a favourite!

Repurposed wood, made to reflect a bird's eye view of the community food centre and surrounding areas.
Repurposed wood, made to reflect a bird’s eye view of the community food centre and surrounding areas.





Regent Garden is a public housing community that was built on the–at that time–cutting edge garden city model developed by Ebenezer Howard in the 1960s. Sounds similar to the Singapore model, only this community’s gardens were actually tended to by the communities living within it. Over the years, garden produce reflected the ethnic communities that came and went – till today where South Asian Bengali produce comes up next to Chinese Pak Choy and sweet potato leaves.

In recent years, revitalisation was called for, and the City Council decided that it would be good to develop property downtown. Now, it has 4 market units for every social housing unit.

It’s not been smooth for the community–along with losing their homes, people feared losing the community gardens that had become a vital part of the area. Of the things people wanted most to stay were the community gardens, or at least, a space to continue gardening. Gardens were not a hobby but a way of having healthy meals, not needing to buy low-nutrition, fast food.  

To draw the different groups working in the area together, and to allow for this transition, Regent Park Community Food Centre was opened, along with a park – meant to be a neutral space that brings the market flats and social housing flats together.


Community food centre: Defined as a community centre where everything is around food. Grows, shares, advocates around food.


Focus area: Social justice and food access

  1. Downstream problem – people are hungry: emergency meal program. What this space provides: 1) Healthy food, served with as much respect as possible. Community meal cooked with a permanent chef on staff, cooked from chef. Good produce from local farms and good produce the equivalent of that which goes to good restaurants. No judgment. Volunteers craft meals and serve. 150 to 250  for lunch, 250 to 300 dinner, recently in summer the meals have gone up, word has gone out. And, 2) Space to hang out. With supervision, families and women started coming too. Totally free, no means testing, no keeping track.
  2. Mid-stream – Food skills programme. Capacity building. Healthy cooking and recipes with broccoli. Breakfast that you make yourself. Community kitchens with different groups. Community cook-in – open to all to get together to prepare a meal and cook enough for 2 days. 10 weeks of this. Peer teaching programme – sharing skills that are useful: Showing people how to demonstrate while letting them do their own thing. Ask the group what they want to learn at the start. Asks people to teach each other.
  3. Way upstream. Advocacy even though government doesn’t provide funding. Identifies people who need support, come for 15 week training to get through the bureacucracy (housing, work skills etc). Train 15, hire 6, and they continue the next time. [Structural and emotional support.] It wants to solve the upstream problems that lead to people needing food. Raising awareness about the support that is needed.


Check them out here.


As revitalisation is happening a lot of garden plots are being lost. A lot of people living here from Bangladesh and are used to having their own plots. Now they are going to have communal plots as a compromise solution.


So a non-profit, Friends of Regent Park, partners with 15 local agencies to work with the communities that are already attached to them, to use this space. These are highly diverse, but gardening is a common language. 50 languages spoken in this neighbourhood, and different social milieus beside – some groups include a South Asian group, maternity club, and people with AIDS. 


Some really know what they're doing! Check out this group - they mulched first, then
Some really know what they’re doing! Check out this group’s soil – they mulched first, then started planting. 

If you liked this post and our work, please consider supporting us. You can do so by volunteering your time (writing this takes time too!), or telling us how you’d like to help. Get in touch at Tell us about yourself, and what you do. Every token of love goes a long way!




We have more ideas than we know what to do with at present! We know what we want to do, we just need more hands and heads to do them all!

Many people have been asking how they can get involved in our work, so we’ve decided to put up this list. If you are keen on seeing this project as it develops and want to contribute to it in any way, big or small, fill in the form below or email us at Big ones and little ones can all do something! Looking forward to hearing from ya!

Here goes:

Small tasks:

  1. Scribes/note-takers. Ad-hoc, whenever we go on a garden visit where we will ask questions and conduct informal interviews with the gardeners/farmers.)
  2. Simple video recording and/or editing. For archival and documentation of the gardens and gardening/farming practices when we conduct our visits

Bigger tasks. We need people who want to volunteer their skills in:

  1. Website design and creation. Help us in setting up a wiki microsite (we are looking at MediaWiki) and linking it to our current site.
  2. Data geek. We need someone with some expertise/experience in working with open-source databases, who can give pointers on the data formats we should offer on the website, and suggest improvements to our platform to make it more readily available and accessible to public use.
  3. Graphic illustration. Create a logo for Foodscape Collective.
  4. Events. Help with coordination of events, posting on Facebook and our Google Calendar. We’ll usually liaise directly with the gardeners and handle all programming, so we just need help making sure things go up online so people know about them! If you want to help with programming though, just say so 🙂
  5. Maps. We’ve gotten some preliminary data, we want to visualise what we already have, and improve our data collection questions to deliver more information about gardens in Singapore. Help with creating map visuals, having some GIS skills in ARCGis, ARCGis Online, Google Maps, or BEST YET: JOSM and OpenStreetMaps would be a great help because we want to work on open source platforms as far as possible. Cuifen and Huiying have some experience with different software for maps, but we’d love to have someone join us who either wants to gain experience, wants to mess around with data, or has an idea for something s/he wants to explore with us relating to gardens, the people and economies associated with gardens, land use, rivers, soil etc.
  6. Data, research leg-work. Supporting the basics of research (cleaning data, transcribing, translating data into machine-readable or software-readable formats) and also interviewing, possibly analysis

Value for volunteering with us: get to interact with like-minded people in the grow your own food movement, get to hone a skill!