'I feel sad when people waste food': Anti-food waste advocate with Down syndrome gets special mention for turning trash into art
SINGAPORE — As someone who grows his own mushrooms for food, 23-year-old Allen Cai, who has Down syndrome, knows innately the challenges and hardships involved in producing food for consumption.
- Mr Allan Cai, 23, is a finalist at the Art of Trash competition 2023 and was awarded a special mention
- The competition is part of a campaign launched by Swiss multinational bank UBS to use art as a way of telling stories about sustainability
- He created an installation on food waste, inspired by his work as a mushroom farmer
- Mr Cai has down syndrome and was previously awarded a Goh Chok Tong Enable Awards (UBS Promise) in 2021 for his contributions towards disability inclusion in Singapore
SINGAPORE — As someone who grows his own mushrooms, 23-year-old Allan Cai, who has Down syndrome, knows innately the challenges and hardships involved in producing food for consumption.
After all, the self-proclaimed environmentalist is wont to preaching about the pitfalls of wasting food and water at the family's dinner table and would constantly hold conversations about the most recent "green" issue that appeared in the news.
"He does not want a single grain of rice to be left on his plate," said his mother Li Shu Yun, 59, a senior lecturer at a higher learning institution.
“In fact, at his previous job, the aunty at the canteen would give him a lot of rice, and it would make him very upset because he had to finish everything," she said, smiling.
On March 9, Mr Cai made it to the top three of Trash Sure’s Art of Trash competition and was awarded a special mention for his art project, an "upcycled" art piece using a donated trash bin.
The competition is part of a campaign launched by Swiss multinational bank UBS to use art as a way of telling stories about sustainability while highlighting the global climate crisis.
He is also a Goh Chok Tong Enable Awards (UBS Promise) award winner in 2021. The award is a part of the Mediacorp Enable Fund, a community fund administered by SG Enable that aims to help build a society where persons with disabilities are recognised for their abilities and lead full socially integrated lives.
With the help of his family, Mr Cai filled the bin with mock-ups of food waste. A paper plate with a frowning face can be seen crying out to the viewer: “I am stuffed with food waste!”
In the captions to his artwork, he wrote that he loves his job at the mushroom farm because it provides food to Singaporeans, increasing the sustainability of the country's local food supply.
“After the mushrooms are harvested, we need to trim, pack, and label them before they can be sent off. It takes a super amount of effort by many people; therefore, I feel so sad when people waste food," he wrote.
Speaking to TODAY, Mr Cai said food waste is an important topic for him.
"My artwork was inspired by my job. I work in a mushroom farm, and I know it is not easy to grow food in Singapore. It needs a lot of effort. So, I use the artwork to tell people not to waste food," he said.
"Sustainability is very important for Singapore, especially food sustainability. A lot of our food is imported from faraway places. So, we must have good habits to reduce food waste."
Mr Cai added that he is worried about the effects of climate change, with global phenomenon like floods and warmer weather more common in the news.
"Also, I read from (the) news that sea levels in Singapore are rising. So, we must do something to help our environment," he urged.
MANY PURSUITS AND INTERESTS
Mr Cai said had signed up for the competition on a whim and only informed his family later that he had to present an artwork.
“It was quite a stressful event, and we had two weekends to finish the piece,” said his mother Mdm Li, adding that her son was nevertheless "very serious" about it.
"So, my husband and I said, okay, cancel work or whatever, let’s sit down as a family and do what he can actually manage,” she recalled to TODAY. She added that her son led the effort to create the art piece, with the rest of the family looped in to help bring it to fruition.
Mdm Li said her son can be quite independent in his daily life. He also balances several hobbies on top of his job at the mushroom farm — he is a pianist, a drummer, a dancer, and an Aikido blue belt.
Mr Cai has also given speeches at conferences about disabilities in the past, despite his hearing loss and speech impediment.
“He struggles with pronouncing words with more than two syllables, but watching him practice his speech over and over again is really inspiring,” said Mdm Li.
He has campaigned for disability inclusion ever since he joined Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore’s (MINDS) Our Lives, Our Voices program in 2017, and seeks to be a role model for people with intellectual disabilities, and to cheer for them in his own way.
For example, Mr Cai will be doing Zumba and Aikido at the Down Syndrome Association’s event on World Down Syndrome Day, which falls on March 18.
“We always jokingly say that Allan is the busiest person in the family,” said his mother.
Related topicsDown syndrome sustainable food
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