Food banks in Hong Kong

Food banks are doing their best to feed the city's needy, but so much more could be done to help their cause,writesNora Tong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2012, 4:53pm

For more than a year Ms Chan has had to rely on food handouts to feed her family. Every week she walks from her home in Sham Shui Po to a food bank in Shek Kip Mei to collect packets of rice, noodles and canned food. Returning with a load of about 20kg, she lugs it up the stairs to her flat on the fifth floor of a walk-up.

The food goes quickly in a household with two adults and two growing children. "We can finish a HK$100 pack of rice within a week," says Chan, who came to Hong Kong seven years ago.

Her husband makes HK$8,500 a month as a kitchen worker but rent and utilities already take up HK$2,500, and then there's travel and other expenses for the children.

"I want to enrol my elder daughter in an English tutorial class run by a charity. That means we wouldn't have enough money for food. But it is very important for her to learn English so that she can get into a good secondary school. [Coming from the mainland] neither my husband nor I can speak the language. We can't help her with her studies," says Chan.

Chan is grateful for the help her family gets from the People's Food Bank, an offshoot of the St James' Settlement charity. Launched in 2003, it's one of the more established food banks in the city, along with Food for All, run by the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals.

Distributing food to the underprivileged is a time-honoured activity, although it tends to be seasonal. But in recognition of a persistent need, a growing battalion of NGOs have begun operating food banks over the past decade.

There are now 21 charities and community groups providing direct food banking (three up from July) at around 170 service points across the city, according to a recent Hong Kong Council of Social Service report. And that's not counting other organisations that act as middlemen. Foodlink Foundation, for instance, collects surplus from hotels and food and beverage outlets for delivery to shelters and the needy, while Feeding Hong Kong gathers excess stock from suppliers and redistributes them to frontline groups.

In 2009, the government channelled HK$100 million to five food bank services under a short-term food assistance initiative which provides beneficiaries with dry rations for up to six weeks. Last year, officials injected another HK$100 million to provide coupons for users to redeem fresh ingredients from supermarkets or hot meals from restaurants. The scheme excludes welfare recipients whose needs are presumed to be fully covered under Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) programmes.

The reality, of course, is far less palatable. Poor families are often forced to reduce food spending in order to pay rent, utilities and transport fees, says Wong Hung, an associate professor of Chinese University's department of social work. For the impoverished elderly, eating less is the only way to save up for visits to a private doctor, instead of queueing for hours at a public hospital when they feel ill.

Nevertheless, many refuse to apply for CSSA because they want to earn their own living rather than depend on government assistance, says Josephine Lee, St James' Settlement's acting deputy chief executive officer.

A key group of food bank users are new immigrants from the mainland, especially single mothers. They often struggle to make ends meet because they have not lived in Hong Kong for at least seven years, so are not entitled to welfare, Wong says. "It's a disgrace that so many Hong Kong people don't have enough to eat when we live in a city with such a high GDP [more than HK$266,000 per person in 2011]," he says. "If the government's CSSA was working, people wouldn't be seeking help from food banks."

A study commissioned by Oxfam last year ("Survey on the Impact of Soaring Food Prices on Poor Families in Hong Kong") served up grim evidence. It found that one in six poor families here (those with monthly incomes that were less than half the household median of HK$9,500) frequently went hungry because they could not afford food. Interviews were conducted with several families and their lives of quiet deprivation are chronicled on a webpage titled "9 meals in Hong Kong"

Among them was Ah Ying, a single mother with three young children living in Tin Shui Wai. Although she was receiving CSSA, it wasn't sufficient. Her eldest child was underweight. And she had to make a piece of frozen beef stretch more than six months, slicing slivers at a time to make beef congee for her youngest daughter, who has thalassaemia, when she felt weak.

Then there was Kwok Kwong, a part-time cleaner, for whom every meal was seasoned with chicken stock powder. The flavouring was not only cheap, it also helped mask the taste of deteriorating produce that he sometimes resorted to. He never spent more than HK$5 on a meal. A dinner comprised of a bowl of leftover rice, accompanied with some preserved vegetables, soy sauce and soup made by heating some chopped turnip in hot water flavoured with chicken powder. Total cost: HK$3.

Recognising the continual need for help, NGOs here have raised funds to provide a greater variety of foods over longer periods, and in different ways.

The People's Food Bank, for example, offers food assistance from six weeks to a year. Programme managers also devise new initiatives to more effectively reach vulnerable groups, such as students who cannot afford school lunchboxes.

Among its latest programmes are fortnightly shopping fairs, where users can buy basic necessities such as oil, salt, sugar and toilet paper at a discount. It's a way of delivering assistance while striving to maintain users' sense of self-respect, Lee says.

"I was very touched when I saw a middle-aged father pushing a trolley with his kids at one of the fairs. Fathers rarely go to food banks. It is difficult for you and me to imagine what it feels like to depend on other people for food. We introduced the shopping fairs hoping to make the experience a dignified one."

Feeding Hong Kong, however, plays a different role. It grew out of concern at the enormous amounts of food wasted, with 3,200 tonnes sent to landfills daily. So instead of making purchases, the group acts as a conduit. It builds partnerships with food companies from manufacturers to retailers, and channels surplus food donated to grass-roots NGOs.

"[Frontline groups] know the needs of the community. But many lack the capacity to knock on the door of food companies and deal with the logistics of donations; it is [in this respect that] we can fill the gap," says Feeding Hong Kong executive director Gabrielle Kirstein.

As part of its Bread Run initiative, staff and volunteers collect salads and sandwiches from Pret A Manger outlets at closing time and deliver them to crisis shelters. They also pick up bread from Maxim's shops, which is stored overnight before being sent to charities the next morning. The Providence Family Farm also donates vegetables, which are redistributed to NGOs with good refrigerating facilities.

"The majority of our food supplies are given free of charge by our partners in the food industry," Kirstein says. "The food is still fit to eat but has lost its commercial value during the normal course of business." With a supply of free food, grass-roots NGOs can divert some of their funds to other services.

But food banking services are hampered by several factors, including donors' worries about potential liability, lack of storage space and the capacity of neighbourhood centres to handle different foods.

Feeding Hong Kong's warehouse in Yau Tong and a temporary facility in Tsuen Wan are sponsored by Sino Group. However, Kirstein hopes to secure sponsorship of a larger permanent space of 5,000 sq ft, with walk-in refrigeration facilities. This would allow them to distribute more fresh produce that would add variety and nutritional value to the diet of poor families.

It's been a challenge persuading food companies to donate surplus stocks because of concerns about potential liability should anyone fall ill after eating them, Kirstein says. However, with help from a local law firm, some fears have been allayed by drafting individual agreements with companies and NGOs. Based on examples overseas, the agreements outline each party's responsibility for achieving the common goal of providing quality food to people in need. This includes putting in place rigorous guidelines on how and when the food should be used, she says.

"With sandwiches, for example, we have a 30-minute guideline between pick-up and drop-off at the designated charity. The sandwiches typically go to crisis shelters where they are eaten the same night or refrigerated for the following day."

Their priority is to ensure the safety and quality of the food distributed, so all items are checked at the warehouses to make sure they haven't expired, packaging isn't ripped or punctured, and cans aren't dented. They also get NGO partners to commit to best practices in food handling and advises them on use-by dates and any special storage requirements.

A few policy changes could go a long way to help, Kirstein says, including the introduction of Good Samaritan legislation which protects donors if they take measures in good faith to ensure the quality of food being distributed. Another incentive would be to make donations of food items a tax-deductible category, as financial contributions are now.

For all the flurry of food banking activities, Stephen Fisher, director general of Oxfam Hong Kong, says focus should not be diverted from addressing the roots of poverty.

"We need sound policies to tackle poverty, and one such area lies in improving CSSA so that poor people can have all their basic needs met," says Fisher, a former director of the Social Welfare Department. "Giving out food isn't the solution to eradicating poverty. People often fall into the poverty trap because of changes in the structure of the economy, or when they have experienced sudden changes."

So while NGOs tap the opportunity of meeting food-bank users to find out more about their specific problems and offer job coaching and counselling where necessary, he says, we must tackle the problems of social injustice. Until broader solutions are found, people like Chan continue to rely on others.

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