More people are being forced to seek meals from charities Fears are growing that Hong Kong is heading towards levels of poverty not seen for half a century. Increasing numbers of people are turning to charities for food handouts and critics say the problem has exposed flaws in the social security system. Sze Lai-shan, community organiser of the Society for Community Organisation, said some families have been forced to cut their spending on food since the government slashed welfare payments by 11.1 per cent in June. Her group is providing free rice to 108 families with sponsorship from a private organisation. 'It is a shame that Hong Kong is going back to the difficult times of the 1950s,' Ms Sze said. For the first time in nearly 50 years, a charity 'food bank' for non-perishable items was set up last November by St James' Settlement. The organisation also reported a 12-fold increase in people seeking its free prepared meals - from four people a day before June 1999 to 50 people a day. Wong Hung-sang, a St James' Settlement service manager, said the organisation used to receive food from hotels and restaurants before the Sars outbreak but said many businesses had since suspended supplies to the organisation. Many hotel restaurants had cut their buffet services, reducing the amount of food left over. 'We were very desperate for food at the time [of the outbreak]. But in April, we received a $100,000 donation that helped us keep the free meal service running,' Mr Wong said. But the demand for free meals has since soared. Although two restaurants and a charitable organisation are now sponsoring the service, Mr Wong said the funds were unlikely to meet the rise in demand for free meals. He said an airline had offered to donate cooked food to the organisation every day - but delivery from Chek Lap Kok was too costly and St James' Settlement might not be able to transport it by itself. The organisation said the most effective donations were canned food and rice. Wong Hung, a social work professor at Chinese University, said the tightening of the welfare system since 1999 had discouraged the needy from applying for government help. 'People are being forced to resort to the food bank to temporarily relieve hunger and poverty,' Dr Wong said. Wong Chack-kie, another social work professor at Chinese University, said the surge in demand for free food might reflect service gaps and flaws in the welfare network. Since June 1999, the Social Welfare Department has tightened its Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) scheme after a drastic rise in the number of dole recipients, whose numbers doubled from 15,679 in 1997 to 32,113 in 1999. The number of dole recipients hit a record 51,372 last month. But Dr Wong said the official figures showed only the tip of the iceberg as many people were still reluctant to apply for welfare. A Social Welfare Department spokesman said the department already provided various charitable services, temporary cash allowances and free food via its family service centres and other social organisations to help those in need. Those who wish to contribute to the food bank can call Mr Wong of St James' Settlement on 29758777, or contact him by e-mail on firstname.lastname@example.org .