Tackling Obesity through Innovation and Sustainable Partnerships in Singapore

Businesses and Governments have been actively trying to promote healthier lifestyles as Asia grapples with high obesity and low levels of physical activity. Leading by example, the Singapore Health Promotion Board (HPB) introduced a multi-level intervention called the Healthy Hawker Programme which aims to provide consumers with a range of healthier food choices. Innovation and a collaborative ‘ecosystem’ – involving people and public-private partnerships (PPPs) – have been central to this initiative.

With over 60% of Singaporeans dining out regularly, these public food places or “hawker centres” are a microcosm of local society. The hawker centres often mirror consumers’ preferences for good food at affordable prices but are not necessarily the healthiest of choices. To curb the resulting rise in obesity, HPB is harnessing the power of partnership by inviting the private sector to play an essential role in delivering a shared goal for a healthy Singapore. The Healthy Hawker Programme capitalises on this partnership by spurring a social movement towards healthier diets.

HPB is working with food manufacturers, ingredient suppliers, public agencies, and Institutes of Higher Learning to modify and develop food products with reduced calories. Given that many of the local foods sold in hawker centres are high in saturated fats and sodium, ingredient modification and reformulation offers great leverage in transforming the diet of the population at a fundamental level.

As the "catalyst" for healthy lifestyles, HPB is convening partnerships across private and the public sectors starting with community-level actions. It secured the support of Grassroots Advisors' to champion health promotion activities in their local constituencies. It then worked with grassroots leaders, who have extensive networks and local knowledge, to identify key health issues specific to each community based on its demographic profile before employing mix and match strategies customised to address their needs.

Mr Zee Yoong Kang, CEO of HPB, is a strong supporter of PPPs. He believes that the efforts thus far are testament to the collaborative insights and expertise of respective partners, coupled with innovative approaches to galvanise action.

“Modern policy challenges are complex and individual agencies working in isolation will be constrained in delivering meaningful public value. Thus, win-win partnerships have to be forged. This allows the design of more sustainable solutions that can tap capabilities not traditionally found within the public health sector.”

Affordability of the healthier ingredients and the taste of the resultant product are crucial.
By experimenting with different product formulations, a balance can be struck among health considerations, taste and manufacturing cost. Healthier options such as whole-grain noodles and improved alternatives to salt, oil and sauces are being developed.

Apart from innovation, it is imperative that public health bodies like the HPB address demand and supply as well as the economic viability for PPPs. HPB for instance, through the Healthy Hawker Programme, has made available a subsidy scheme that industries can tap on to invest in R&D efforts in advancing healthier food innovation.

Chairman of SMF Membership & Industry Groups, Mr Sunny Koh is positive that continuous efforts at strengthening the food supply chain from research to supply will bring about great cost efficiency and value.

“Business viability remains a concern for industry players. R&D and innovation efforts are greatly influenced by several market forces. Ultimately, the consumer, is king in this playing field. Their taste buds and willingness to embrace healthier food alternatives will affect the outcome of PPPs. However, with the increased efforts in food technology, adoption of this new healthy lifestyle can be easier to achieve.”

FIA is committed to learning from best practice in Singapore and supporting similar collaborative efforts across Asia, particularly in ASEAN. With several innovative partnerships in the pipeline, FIA believes there is an increasing commitment from all parties to improving health and overall wellness, empowering communities and raising quality of life. Innovations in nutrition and lifestyle education will be critical to achieving that goal.

Singapore’s Healthy Hawker Programme demonstrates Governments can take a proactive approach in identifying the ‘heart’ of their own food culture. Insightful evaluations can, in turn, reflect necessary policy and programmatic recommendations for similar PPPs in their respective communities.

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