Free food for the community, by the community
One man is using the power of food to connect people across Singapore, and to reignite the ‘kampung (village) spirit’ in their communities.
Meet Nizar Shariff, who founded charity Free Food for All, or FFFA, in 2014 to serve balanced, halal meals to the less fortunate.
Friends and family call him “Big Bear”, and you can see why. At 1.85m tall, Nizar cuts a formidable figure. Mind you, he comes across more Teddy than Grizzly.
Nizar was a successful Singaporean businessman, before he was struck with a desire to do something meaningful.
The question was what. To find the answer, he stuck his nose in the charity sector, and quite quickly, sniffed out his second calling.
He had noticed that while several organisations were regularly distributing cooked food to the poor, these were either vegetarian or non-halal options.
Free Food for All fills the gap for daily halal meals.
Since it started, the charity has given out more than 320,000 meals.
Nizar emphasises that while many of the beneficiaries are Muslim, Free Food for All does not discriminate. Anyone who needs food can request for it, he says, “regardless of race or religion,” and counts non-Muslims among the beneficiaries.
FFFA has since evolved into more than a project to feed people. It is also about strengthening communities through the currency of food.
“Food is the glue that binds us all together. It opens doors. It creates opportunities. It builds bonds and relationships, so that we can all be contributing members of society,” says Nizar.
Haslina Manaf and her family were once beneficiaries of the FFFA’s Daily Dinner Delivery programme. But when Nizar discovered she enjoyed cooking, he asked her to manage the meals for the residents in her estate.
In exchange, she would receive a small fee to buy groceries, and could use what was left to help with her family’s household expenses.
Taking on this responsibility has not only enhanced her relationships with her neighbours, it also complements her other role as a grassroots leader.
“Meeting them with a smiley face, really makes my day,” says Haslina. The free meals have encouraged beneficiaries, many who are elderly and isolated, to come out of their homes and to socialise.
“Previously, they were very lonely and moody. Now, when I see them, they start to wave from afar. I have seen changes in them. They are more confident, jovial and outspoken,” she says.
The food distribution programme would be impossible without the commitment of volunteers, young and old.
Take 74-year-old retiree Lee Teck Guan, who finds satisfaction in bringing the packets of food to his neighbours who are ill, weak, or immobile.
He is practical: “Delivering food benefits my health. Climbing the stairs is a form of exercise.”
And also philosophical. Of one woman who lost her leg to diabetes, he says, “When I get food for her, I feel as if fate has brought us together.”
Says Nizar, “No man is an island. If we were to do things on our own, naturally it’s going to be a very difficult task.”
One major challenge is keeping FFFA’s food programmes running. Nizar has been shouldering most of the costs, dipping into his own savings to fund the project. But giving up is not an option. And he hopes more awareness will inspire the public to dig deep, so no one has to go hungry.
“It’s tough to do something you’re passionate about and there’s not enough funding. But the dreams of the people I help, who tell me how important it is, the food or services that we provide, gives me the strength to wake up in the morning.”
Free Food for All is a “a community project for the community, by the community,” says Nizar. “It creates channels, opportunities. It empowers people.”
“So that they in turn would help others,” he adds.