Spirit of Hong Kong

Hong Kong foundation owner on a mission to feed city’s poor, and cut down on food wastage

Elli Fu Nga-nei of J Life Foundation set up centres to hand out food, provide space for children to do homework and learn and help them help themselves

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 May, 2017, 7:36pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 May, 2017, 9:51pm

Throngs of women were crowding a social service centre in Sham Shui Po, as they waited for free food on a stormy day.

The women, some of the 750 members of J Life Foundation, reached out for the bread, butter and broccoli handed out by the group’s chief executive Elli Fu Nga-nei and other helpers.

Fu, who started the organisation to provide food for poor Hongkongers, does this every day.

“I don’t want there to be a day when I don’t do frontline work and only manage, when I can’t be with the people I help,” she said.

The Christian devotee said the “J” in the name of her foundation stood for Jesus.

Fu started J Life Foundation in 2012 and opened J Cafe, a social service centre for street kids.

At the Sham Shui Po cafe, such children can get a free meal after school and relieve stress in a band room.

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The next year, Fu launched a second centre nearby – this time for families, in particular new immigrants or single parents. Here, she hands out food twice a day, and children can visit the centre after school to do their homework with the help of university students, hired by the foundation.

Last month, she set up a third centre in Cheung Sha Wan, built with a music room, where the needy can get packets of food.

J Life has a strict system in place to ensure the food handouts are given to those who really need them.

Poor Hongkongers first sign up with the foundation, then Fu assesses their financial situation by visiting their homes, usually subdivided flats. If successful, they will be added as members and will be assigned a schedule detailing when they should visit the centres, which is drawn up according to their needs.

When it comes to sourcing for food, Fu, who formerly worked in sales and marketing, adopts a corporate approach, contacting food vendors such as Maxim’s and Citysuper, and hotels, and asking them to give away leftovers.

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To build trust, she makes sure the donors’ brands are protected.

“I break the lids of milk powder tins just before handing them out, so they can’t be resold. Brands don’t ask me to do this; we’re already doing it,” she said.

“They’re confident in us. I have a corporate background, so I understand companies’ needs.”

Fu left a career in sales and marketing with more than HK$1 million in savings, all of which she poured into J Life. She said she did not need her high-paying job at a luxury watch company, but that it had helped her get the foundation off the ground. With J Life expanding its reach, she has sought funding from corporate institutions with the same goal as hers – to achieve quick and visible results.

When the J Life chief executive was a child, a social worker found her rummaging in a rubbish bin for food. She was then placed in an orphanage, where she spent her childhood years.

Having lived through parts of her life without sufficient food, and inspired by the social workers who took care of her, Fu was determined to help the poor and eliminate food waste, using J Life as a platform.

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“From the day I started J Life in 2012, there hasn’t been a single day where I’ve had to pay for food [for handouts]. Can you imagine how much food we’re throwing away?” Fu said.

J Life’s aim in giving out food and helping children with their schoolwork is to help others help themselves in the long run.

Fu also hopes the recipients will adopt a mentality of giving back.

“If you ask any of the children here whether they want to have tea or do service, they’ll shout: ‘Service!’ They’re happier sharing and helping people. They don’t have to be cramped up at home, they hold my hand and we give away food together.”

Fu is adamant that even poor people can have a great life, despite starting out at a more disadvantaged position compared with others. All they need is just a little help at the beginning, just like in her case, she insists.

For her work in hunger alleviation, she has been nominated for the South China Morning Post’s Spirit of Hong Kong Awards in the Community Contribution category.

Fu also dreams big, which is why she has her sights set on reaching even more people.

“My final destination is other countries. I’ve been to places like Africa, Myanmar, the Philippines and Bangladesh to do social service. I saw how impoverished they were. I really want J Life’s food to reach these countries, I want their children to have food and education.”