Eating like a Hong Kong refugee: teacher lives on HK$40 food a day for charity
After finding out how little money the city’s refugees are given to eat and travel, Mai Schroder decided to share their plight for a week while raising funds for Free to Run, with advice on what to eat from a nutritionist
Can you imagine what you would eat if you had only HK$40 (US$5.10) a day for food? Or how you would get around the city with just a HK$50 weekly transport allowance?
This the reality for refugees seeking asylum in Hong Kong, and for one week Mai Schroder is learning for herself how difficult these restrictions can be.
The PE teacher has taken up the challenge to raise awareness of the plight of Hong Kong refugees, while also fundraising for Free to Run, a charity that provides outdoor sports opportunities and mentoring for women and girls affected by war and conflict.
Schroder leads a Thursday evening running group as a volunteer for the charity, which she joined earlier this year knowing little about the status of refugees in Hong Kong.
“I have become very interested and passionate about trying to improve their circumstances,” she said. “I was trying to think of something I could do that was a bit different to raise money, but I also wanted to make sure I raised awareness while doing it.”
Funds raised will help Free to Run provide more opportunities to help refugees take part in outdoor activities that do not cost anything and “where they are part of a community and feel valued and safe”, Schroder says.
Refugees receive their daily food allowance in the form of HK$40 worth of ParknShop coupons, so like them, Schroder will only shop at that supermarket – despite there being other places that offer cheaper options. It will be a challenge: her usual weekly grocery bill is about HK$600 – more than double the HK$280 she has for the week – not to mention the four times she usually dines out on weekends.
The biggest challenge for the self-confessed foodie, though, is time. “I know exactly how many cups of tea I can have a day and exactly how much milk I can use to last me the week … [but] due to the lack of transport money, it means getting places takes longer because I have to take a cheaper route to and from work.”
She is swapping her usual HK$11.50 direct minibus ride to and from work for a HK$6 double-decker bus ride that requires a 30-minute walk each morning, and a 30-minute walk and a HK$2 tram ride home.
Schroder understands how fortunate she is to be able to return to her usual living standards after just one week. “The optimist in me says there is an end for both me and the refugees. [But] for me, the end is next week. For refugees, the end could be years away.”
Registered nutritionist Michelle Lau, an educator at Hong Kong-based consultancy Nutrilicious, has been advising Free to Run on how to help local refugees make nutritious food choices with their limited funds.
While she says it is possible to eat “semi-nutritiously” on HK$40 a day, it requires planning and research, while adherence to particular food-shopping strategies also helps.
“Making a shopping list has the benefit of limiting impulse purchases, as does shopping after a meal when you’re full rather than before a meal when you’re hungry,” Lau suggests.
“I advise stocking up on non-perishable items, such as pasta, beans, frozen vegetables, canned foods – which are also usually comparatively cheaper than fresh produce – when they’re on sale to reduce costs over time, and buying dried goods such as grains in bulk, which is much less expensive than buying pre-packaged varieties.”
She advises buying seasonal fruits and vegetables which are cheaper than off-season produce, and store-brand items which are similar in nutrition and quality to costlier brand-name items.
“We can meet our protein requirements without buying high-end items such as wild salmon and premium cuts of beef. Canned fish, eggs, nuts and beans are good sources of protein, and are more affordable. Also, eating one or two meatless meals per week can reduce food costs considerably,” she says.
Lau suggests buying items that pack a nutritional punch, such as beans, lentils, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, eggs, peanut butter, canned salmon, tuna, oats, brown rice, barley, frozen fruit and vegetables.
Preparing meals at home rather than eating out will also save money, she says, adding that cooking in batches and freezing meal portions helps reduce time in the kitchen.