Take a stroll through Singapore’s bustling hawker centres and you’ll find this sight: stir-fried egg noodles tossed above a flaming fire with moist shrimp and succulent pork, served with a sliver of lime and sambal chili. The next time you order this dish at a hawker centre in Singapore, it may very well be prepared by one of many vulnerable people trained in the kitchen.
Hawker centres remain popular for providing inexpensive food conveniently located near bus interchanges and train stations. In response to rising food costs, the Government of Singapore announced in October 2011 that it will be building 10 new hawker centres in under-served areas over the next 10 years to provide affordable food.
In November, the Public Consultation Panel on Hawker Centres was formed, comprising of 18 representatives from different social enterprises and industries. The Panel provides ideas on the new hawker centres with a focus on ensuring food prices remain affordable.
In building a new generation of hawker centres, the Panel recommends that the hawker centres would be run by social enterprises sustainably using a management model that would allow:
1) The community to derive maximum benefit from the centre,
2) The centre to serve as an employment opportunity, especially for individuals in the lower income groups and the less privileged, and
3) The centre to provide a platform for individuals who aspire to be part of the food industry.
Already, there are institutions providing disadvantaged and disabled individuals with skills training that could support project goal #2. Dignity Kitchen began in 2010 with a mission to build and return the dignity to the disadvantaged and disabled. They run a six-week Hawker Training Program designed to train students in basic food hygiene, food preparation, kitchen safety, and simple cooking, with work placement upon program completion. Students range from ex-offenders to those with physical and mental disabilities.
A Recommendation Report by the Panel indicates a number of suggestions for building these new hawker centres: definition of roles (such as government responsibility of ensuring the management model is practical and sustainable while meeting food affordability goals), design that promotes environmental sustainability, as well as street busking and cooking demonstrations to build vibrancy around these centres.
In another part of Asia, food is also the centre of attention when it comes to employment opportunities for disadvantaged people. Established in 2001, WeCan is a social enterprise in South Korea that sells cookies and provides employment for people with mental disabilities. Though prejudice against disabled people preparing cookies made it initially difficult to establish the company, sales last year total roughly KRW 580 million (USD 500,000) – an encouraging achievement for a company still in the red.
“I feel great when people eat the cookie I made and they appreciate it. I would like to live as an independent person, not [as someone with] disability who should get care from the society,” said one employee.
Heading west to the UK, a similar picture is painted. The Beyond Food Foundation offers a six-month apprenticeship program called United Kitchen to people who have been at risk of or have experienced homelessness. The opportunity is aimed at providing the skills toward future sustainable employment.
While each of these programs differ in size and region, they all have a common goal of providing meaningful employment and inclusion for the most vulnerable people through food, operating on the belief that there is opportunity for all.
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