17 hawkers do their bit to serve customers with swallowing difficulties in Smaller Bites campaign

SINGAPORE – For seven years, Madam Lina Ang prepared easy-to-chew food for her husband, who had swallowing difficulties after a stroke, until his death in 2011.

Now, the 64-year-old hawker painstakingly does the same for customers who have problems swallowing, by cutting up noodles and ingredients in other dishes that she sells.

The condition, medically termed dysphagia, affects mostly seniors and can arise from Parkinson’s disease, stroke or general ageing.

In general, 15 per cent of the elderly population suffer from dysphagia, according to Alexandra Hospital (AH).

People with dysphagia have to eat soft, cut-up food to reduce their risk of choking and food entering their airway.

Madam Ang was one of 17 hawkers trained in August and September to prepare food for those with dysphagia under a campaign called Smaller Bites to Swallow Right.

Between them, they offer a range of local favourites such as herbal mutton soup, fried carrot cake and yong tau foo at Alexandra Village Food Centre and ABC Brickworks Food Centre.

Customers with dysphagia or their caregivers can ask these stallholders for their food to be chopped, minced or pureed at no extra charge.

For instance, if a customer with dysphagia orders sliced fish soup, the fish and noodles would be chopped, minced or blended. The soup would be served separately.

Initiated by two speech therapists from AH, the movement aims to provide dysphagia patients with a variety of food to enjoy, while also easing the burden on their caregivers.

The idea came to Mr Samuel Chi, 31, and Ms Tey Jo Ching, 33, in August as they were eating at a hawker centre.

Mr Chi said: “I realised that my patients would also love to eat hawker food, but some of them are not able to due to their swallowing difficulties.”

The duo roped in colleagues from their hospital and subsequently worked with the Queenstown Hawker Task Force, which is led by Mr Paul Liew.

The two hawker centres were chosen as the pilot locations as they are near AH and are accessible to its patients.

Mr Liew runs Keng Eng Kee Seafood in Bukit Merah Lane, which also provides minced and diced food for those with dysphagia.

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Madam Ang, who runs the Xing Guang Vegetarian stall at Alexandra Village Food Centre, told The Straits Times that she was excited to be a part of the campaign, as helping people with dysphagia reminded her of how she used to help her husband mince his food.

“I would dice and mince his food for all three meals a day,” she told The Straits Times.

“Now, when I serve customers with dysphagia, I think of my husband. I think he would be proud of me because I’m doing this with love.”

Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Eric Chua launched the campaign on Thursday (Oct 14) at Alexandra Village Food Centre and put up Smaller Bites to Swallow Right decals at the nine participating stalls there.

Leon Kee Claypot Pork Rib Soup owner Ng Teck Soon (right) with Parliamentary Secretary for MCCY and MSF Eric Chua at Mr Ng’s stall at Alexandra Village Food Centre on Oct 14, 2021. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

The decals have also been placed at eight stalls at ABC Brickworks Food Centre.

Both food centres are in Mr Chua’s ward, and he hopes to expand the campaign to two others in his constituency next year – Mei Ling Market and Food Centre and Tanglin Halt Food Centre.

“Queenstown is an older estate. In fact, about three in 10 of our residents are 60 years old and above,” Mr Chua said.

“Dysphagia affects our seniors more than it affects others in the population. So I am thankful that we have this project going on to help our seniors.”

Hawker Hong Mei Lian, 55, said she was drawn to the initiative as she had been a caregiver of her elderly mother-in-law, who also suffered from dysphagia before she died seven years ago.

“It may be an extra step, but it helps the elderly enjoy the food better and their caregivers would not have to worry about them choking. I am not worried about it being troublesome,” said Madam Hong, who has been running Ming Xiang Zhi Char for five years with her husband.

Madam Hong Mei Lian, 55, at her stall at Alexandra Village Food Centre on Oct 14, 2021. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO 

The initiative has also been welcomed by caregivers, as it will help alleviate some stress.

Mrs Wee Gek Suan, 82, said her 90-year-old husband started exhibiting swallowing difficulties three years ago.

“My husband has to have a soft diet, and I would always cook for him. Sometimes, it gets difficult to think of what to cook. I also know that he longs for good old hawker food,” said the Queenstown resident, a retired human resource manager.

“I am very touched that so many hawkers have agreed to go the extra mile and help those with dysphagia. This will help us more than they know.

“I just hope that this initiative will get more people to become aware of this condition and not take choking or swallowing difficulties lightly,” said Mrs Wee.

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