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Education, Env. Protection

From Kernel to Plate: Exploring the Origins of Food

On 16 June, 80 youths arrived at Bollywood Veggies, a farm in the outskirts of Singapore, to take part in “Running Vero @ Happy Farm”, with the aim to learn about the origins of the food they eat. Through experiencing the process of rice transplanting in the paddy fields and various other activities, these youths were made to think about the difference one can make in environmental protection.

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Our Veros learning about the origins of their food during the “Running Vero @ Happy Farm” activity held at Bollywood Veggies located in the outskirts of Kranji. (Photo by Lian Ya Hui)

“At noon they weed with hoes, sweat dripping onto the earth below. Who would know that the food on his plate comes from such toil?” This is a Chinese poem titled “Sympathy for The Farmers”, and is well known to all, but how many of our youths today truly understand the toil of the farmers as mentioned in this poem?

After the “Running VERO–Mission Market Exploration” held in July, 2012, the second installment of the “Running Vero” series of activities saw 80 “Veggie Heroes” or VEROs coming together on 16 June, 2013, at Bollywood Veggies in Kranji for “Running Vero @ Happy Farm”, with the aim of exploring the origins of the food they eat.

During the event, these youths experienced first-hand, the process of rice transplanting, and played games at various simulation stations representing different “milestones” in the process of food production and shipment. Through these activities, they were able to understand that food does not come by easily and have therefore learnt to not waste their food.

Tracing the “Roots” of Our Produce

Many of our youths have never seen fruits and vegetables growing naturally in farms, let alone perform farming tasks themselves, as such farms in Singapore are far and few between. As such, the organizing committee prepared a set of crossword puzzles consisting of fifteen questions for the participants. Using the characteristics of the fruits and vegetables provided, the participants have to look for the produce as described and take pictures of them in the soil or on trees. This session was named “Tracing the ‘Roots’ of Our Produce,” which meant that the participants had to trace the origins of the food to when they were planted as seedlings.

Given a tight time frame of only twenty minutes, some participants searched the information boards around the farm frantically, while others tried searching for the answers on their smartphones. All over the farm, one could hear a variety of questions and exclamations from the participants as they pondered over the crossword puzzle or when they had found what they were looking for. Each closing of the shutter brought the participants one step closer to the origins of the produce.

Jiang Weijie, a fresh graduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS), commented, “The plants I see here look so different from what I usually see. For example, I have seen chili but have never seen the actual plant before, therefore I nearly missed it when looking for it just now. Also, I discovered that there are actually so many varieties of bananas. Today was an eye-opener!”

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With the help of information on various plants displayed in the farm, the participants sourced for  answers to a crossword puzzle and took pictures of plants in their natural habitats. (Photo by Tang Cau Zie)

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Tour guide of the farm, explained to the participants the process of rice cultivation. “These crops are like humans – they need sunlight, water and earth for survival, [therefore] the preparation of the soil and irrigation is very important; after cultivation begins, it takes at least 3 months before we can harvest them.” (Photo by Ng Sher Lin)

Reliving the Lives of Farmers

Other than growing fruits and vegetables, the farm also has a few small plots of paddy field, which is a must-go for all visitors. “Rice is just like humans – they require sunlight, water and earth to grow. Preparing the soil and irrigation is hence one of the most important steps before transplanting the crops, and the cultivation process takes about three months before the crops can be harvested.” Through the sharing by the farm’s tour guide, Wei Wei, everyone realized that the grains they eat daily all come from the toil and sweat of farmers.

What came next surprised the participants – as youths living in the city, to be able to walk barefoot in the muddy paddy fields was something they could only imagine. Under the guidance of the tour guide, the participants transplanted the rice seedlings into the field, allowing the seedlings a 15cm by 15cm space between each other. Due to the uneven terrain of the muddy ground, the participants were thrown off balance while waddling in the field, but the smiles stayed on their faces as they went through the process.

Song Hong Sheng was the first to transplant the seedlings, and he shared that because they only transplanted a few seedlings, it was hard for them to imagine how tough it is for the farmers to do that day after day. On the other hand, Zhang Yanting from Nanyang Technology University (NTU) initially rejected the idea of walking barefoot in the field, but she gradually adapted to it and even enjoyed the experience of being so close to nature. She said that having this actual experience was even more fulfilling than just acquiring the knowledge from books. Chen Wen Hui, a graduated Tzu Shao from Tzu Chi Teenagers Class, was very proactive during transplanting. Thinking that more rice could be harvested if more seedlings were transplanted, he did the work three times.

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Initially rejecting the idea of walking barefoot in the muddy field, Zhang Yanting from NTU gradually adjusted to it and even enjoyed the process. (Photo by Lian Ya Hui)

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Participants searched for two identical “fruits” in the farm to sell to the “wholesalers” at the farm simulation area, where pictures of these fruits were hung on trees. (Photo by Wong Rui Chuen)

Understanding the Supply Chain for Food Produce

After harvesting, the produce has to be shipped to various wholesalers and smaller markets before reaching the hands of the consumers. What the average city-dweller knows of food wastage is limited to what happens in the kitchen or on the dining table. Food wastage can also occur at different stages during the shipping and handling process. In view of this, the organizing team set up simulation stations to show the participants at which point in the supply chain food wastage will occur, with the aim of provoking the participants to think about what they can do as individuals to help prevent all these wastages.

At the farm simulation station, pictures of various fruits and vegetables were hung on the trees. The participants had to search for identical “produce” and sell these “produce” to wholesalers. When they were picking the “fruits and vegetables”, they saw that some of them looked very beautiful, just like those displayed on supermarket shelves, but some were abnormally shaped or lacked luster. The students ignored that, thinking that they were able to sell them all, but what happened at the “wholesaler” changed their mind.

If the “produce” did not look good or were different from marketable produce, they were thrown away right in front of the participants. Yang Yi Xuan, a participant of “Running Vero”, could not bear to see the fruits of his labour being thrown away and decided to convince the wholesaler to buy them by telling him how else the guava he had collected could still be sold to consumers, despite its unappealing appearance.

In the real world, the market mechanism determines the prices of the farm produce; faced with the fluctuating prices, farmers were sometimes forced to sell their produce cheaply or leave the produce to rot in the fields.

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The transport simulation station challenged the participants to ship the produce while generating the lowest carbon footprint. They had to first match the produce to the country of export and then ship them using either “planes” or “cars”. (Photo by Ng Sher Lin)

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In “Sit not on the fence ”, participants had to judge based on the scenario given to them whether it was a case of food wastage or not, and jump to the side of the“fence” representing “Agree” or “Disagree” after the station master presented each scenario to them. (Photo by Wong Rui Chuen)

Reducing Wastage at Checkpoints

With very limited natural resources and land space in Singapore, most of the food we consume has to be imported from abroad. During the shipping process, many more resources are used, which increases carbon footprints. The transport simulation station challenged the participants to use the smallest possible carbon footprint to ship the food. They must first match the exporting country to the food items they were about to buy, and then ship them to Singapore by “air” or “land”.

While simulating air freight, the participants were all hopping around breathlessly. With a twist of events, they met with a “typhoon” and their freight was delayed, causing the fruits to be imported to rot, and a new batch of fruits had to be bought. Apart from natural disasters, there are other situations such as workers going on strikes and flight delays, which could happen and cause the entire batch of fruits and vegetables to be wasted even before they reached the point of sale.

The fruits and vegetables that were successfully imported went through a round of selection and packaging process before they were put on sale. At the market simulation station, two groups of participants portrayed two different consumer groups – the rich and the poor—and walked around buying whatever they could afford. The rich had $350, and with this amount of money, they bought sushi, ice cream, apples and peaches, and Brazilian coffee powder, among other expensive food items. On the other hand, the poor could only afford bread, beans, rice and other cheaper foods.

The participants were then suddenly thrown onto a deserted island, and what they had bought previously could only last for ten days, four days short of the time at which the rescue team could arrive. The rich realized their folly of buying the expensive food items, as these items could not make a decent meal. However, the cheaper items, such as rice and bread, could supply everyone with the energy they need, however unappealing they look.

Because the ship would only arrive four days after their supplies ran out, the participants had to use their creativity and think of how else they could salvage what was left of the food they had. Amidst the lively discussion, they thought of ideas, such as using fruit scraps like papaya skins (which were usually discarded) as food source and eating to 70-80% full.

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The rice planting activity had the biggest impact on Jiang Zong Jin, as he experienced for himself the difficulties farmers face and realized that he should pay more attention to reducing food wastage. It is an experience that he will share with his family. (Photo by Ng Sher Lin)

Sharing the Excess

Is food still wasted after purchase, or will consumers use it wisely?

At the consumer simulation station, the participants played a game of “Sit not on the fence”, where they had to choose between “Agree” and “Disagree” when presented with a scenario. Any mistakes made by teammates would earn demerit points for the entire team.

One question presented to the participants was to decide whether eating to one’s fill at a buffet was an example of food wastage or not. Some of them were a little confused initially, but after an extension of the scenario depicting how some consumers would take as much food as possible so as to make their money worthwhile, all of the participants agreed that it was an example of food wastage, as food that could not be finished at the end of the meal was thrown away. Even though a small act by an individual is not significant enough to affect the entire market in the short term, but accumulated through time, the food choices of a community will definitely create an impact.

“Running Vero @ Happy Farm” is an extension of the “80-20 Principle Movement” initiated at the start of the year, a campaign that emphasizes reducing 20 percent of one’s expenditure (on food or other items) and using the amount saved to help people in need.

Jiang Zong Jin, a graduate from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, felt that the transplanting experience left the deepest impression on him. Through his interaction with the farmers, he had also found out that to produce a kilogram of rice, a thousand litres of water is needed, and weather is the main factor determining the quality of the harvest. Also, given the same amount of land space the participants had, professional farmers can produce five kilograms of rice, whereas the participants could only manage to produce one kilogram due to misalignment in their seedlings.

Zong Jin also shared that he now understood the hard work the farmers put in, and he would be sharing with his family about his experience, telling them that as long as they make conscious effort to choose foods produced locally, if not, from countries as near to Singapore as possible, they can help reduce carbon footprints and food wastage.

At the end of the event, the demerit points of each team were totaled and the scores were tallied. The group with the most points left, had six dishes for their lunch, while the group with the lowest score had three. The groups that had more dishes, however, displayed remarkable sportsmanship and shared with the other groups their extra dishes.

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