A healthy meal can be had by all, including the poor

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am


In these times of spiralling inflation in Hong Kong, low-income workers and their children are struggling to eat nutritionally balanced meals.

While Hong Kong ranks eighth in the world as a wealthy economy in terms of its gross domestic product per capita (based on purchasing power parity), the distribution of wealth - and food - is very unequal: Hong Kong also has one of the highest income gaps for a developed economy, and recent Oxfam Hong Kong research indicates that one out of six poor households with children live in a state of 'high food insecurity' and experiences hunger.

In Hong Kong, the term 'food insecurity' is rarely heard, and the government does not pay serious attention to this basic human need and basic human right.

According to the United Nations, people are 'food-insecure' when they do not have regular 'access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life'.

The Hong Kong government's food assistance policy lags far behind international standards.

Food and nutrition programmes in Canada and the United States, for example, actively stress the provision of nutritional food for low-income families, ensuring a variety of healthy food, such as fresh fruit and vegetables.

Our government, on the other hand, only funds five non-governmental organisations to provide dry and canned food at 'food banks' in limited areas of Hong Kong - a very passive act.

It does not actively collect, purchase, package and distribute food as is done in Canada and the US, and does not use existing community facilities equipped with kitchens to provide nutritious meals.

Our government also does not utilise a food coupon system to provide fresh food, nor is there any in-kind transfer or cash assistance in place to assist low-income workers and their families, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit programme in the US, or the Working Income Tax Benefit scheme in Canada.

Hong Kong should, through the government's policy address and budget, use its wealth to offer more assistance for low-income families.

For one, it should implement a new work incentive meal subsidy. Under the scheme, the government could provide half of the HK$30 average lunch cost: full-time workers would receive HK$15 a day, or HK$390 for a 26-working-day month; and part-time workers would get half this amount.

The subsidy can be viewed as a work incentive. The operation, eligibility criteria and administration could be the same as the existing Work Incentive Transportation Subsidy; workers would receive both subsidies simultaneously.

Second, to assist poor children, the existing student meal allowances under the Community Care Fund should become a regular programme - not just ad hoc - and should be extended to assist secondary school students (not just primary).

Sceptics might say that these proposals would turn Hong Kong into a welfare state. Yet, the new measures would account for only 3.3 per cent of the government's social welfare expenditure. By contrast, the food stamp programme in the US, a non-welfare state, accounted for about 15 per cent of its welfare expenditure last year.

The government, with a sizeable financial reserve, has the ability to overhaul the current inadequate food assistance programme. The upcoming policy address is the last chance for the administration of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to address employment poverty and food insecurity in Hong Kong.

Charles Ho is a policy officer with Oxfam Hong Kong