Food banks a source of relief for families

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 July, 2012, 12:00am

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It was not easy for Mrs Lee to ask for help in feeding her family of three. But with an irregular household income of about HK$6,000, the 40-year-old housewife was left with no choice.

Three years ago, Lee began seeking help at the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals' Food For All - Short-term Food Assistance Service, where she received rice, oil, noodles, canned food and supermarket coupons for fresh food from their Tai Kok Tsui centre. Above all she was grateful for the rice, an expensive item these days, even though she was initially reluctant to visit the food bank for fear of bruising her husband's ego as the family's breadwinner.

'My husband has difficulty finding work due to his age and struggles with severe mental stress,' she said of Mr Lee, 60, who works on short jobs as a renovator.

'I told him that we are not being greedy because if we can get some help with food, it will relieve the pressure on him. He will at least not have to worry about putting food on the table. Now he's warmed to the assistance.'

The Lee family is one of a growing number of impoverished households living hand-to-mouth. An Oxfam Hong Kong survey last August found that one in every six households with children was in a state of 'high food insecurity'.

Last year, the South China Morning Post's Heart of Hong Kong Relief Fund raised more than HK$1.3 million from readers, which has helped two food banks provide fresh food to the hungry. The donations were shared between the Tung Wah's 'Love, moving on' programme and the People's Food Bank of St James' Settlement.

St James' Settlement used the funds donated by Post readers to buy fresh food to include in their six-week food packs, and it is expected about 700 families will benefit. One of the beneficiaries, Mrs Lam, a new immigrant mother of two and wife of a construction worker, said fresh vegetables had been the biggest help from the St James' food pack. The Tung Wah food bank has used the donations from Post readers to create the 'Love, moving on' programme to help families with children aged between four and 18. So far, 600 families, including the Lees, have been assisted.

In addition, breakfast workshops will teach primary-age children how to prepare a nutritional morning meal.

Mrs Lee, who moved to Hong Kong from Shenzhen in 2007, said her daughter Phoebe did not eat enough protein: 'I give her a lot of fresh vegetables and fruit because she's growing but I think she's undernourished and I'm worried that I won't see the effects until it's too late.'

If the housewife could cook whatever she fancied for her daughter, it would be broth made from fresh bones for protein. But the ingredients are out of her budget, and keeping the stove on for so many hours is too costly.

She soon realised the food bank was not only offering relief for her family's financial stress but also offered a safe haven where she could confide in social workers. 'It's given me a place to vent,' Mrs Lee said, cracking a smile.

And in the spirit of giving, Phoebe returned Tung Wah's kindness by performing a jazz dance at a fundraising show last December.

Post reader architect Peter Lee, 46, was moved by the reports of people in need of food assistance. Although he had had virtually no experience in volunteering, he contacted Tung Wah last year. He has now been helping stock shelves and making home deliveries one day a week, for the past year.

'There are many different issues but food is neutral, in that it is such a basic human right,' Lee said. 'No matter what age, gender or religion you are, you need food.

'Our society can be so unforgiving. We have abject poverty in Hong Kong, but what I found to be most important is to give hope to the poor.

'How I can help is by making visits and chatting with the beneficiaries, letting them know that they are cared for and return to them the respect and dignity they deserve.'