Hong Kong community groups help families cope during the pandemic

  • January 29, 2021
Hong Kong community groups help families cope during the pandemic

By Joy Sze

The place was a mess.

Boxes holding donated secondhand appliances lined the walls. Days after they were used for a workshop, scattered plastic stools awaited removal. At the end of a corridor stood a refrigerator, its glass door revealing empty shelves. 

In this crammed, 1,000-square-feet office, Parkson Yeung shared his desk and storage space with three other organizations that serve the Tin Shui Wai neighborhood, one of the poorest in Hong Kong.

Yeung, a project manager at the nonprofit organization Community Development Alliance, oversaw a new food assistance program called “Wai Sing Sown Nuen,” which means “giving out warmth in an isolated town.” The 24-week program helps poor families with children cope with food shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Back in May, Yeung and his staff screened more than 80 applicants, though the program had funding to serve only 50 families. Starting in June, each of those families could receive two packs of fresh food daily along with recipes designed by nutritionists.

“We aim at helping the low-income families,” Yeung said. “A lot of them work in the construction or transportation sector, which is hit hard during the pandemic.”

The unemployment rate in Hong Kong hit a 16-year high at 6.4 percent in July. According to a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, more than half of the interviewees said they lost 50 percent of household incomes during the pandemic, and one-third of them said they are no longer able to cover food expenses.

With an economic recession of this scale, the number of needy people far exceeds what Yeung’s program could cover.

“There’s only so much funds we received,” Yeung said. “What is 50 families in a town with 300,000 people?”

Hong Kong Church Network For the Poor, a religious group that tackles poverty in local communities, has also stepped up in the fight against hunger.

In addition to its long-running food assistance programs, the church network launched the Prepaid Food Coupon campaign in August, in which it partnered with local restaurants to provide hot food for the underprivileged.

The organization raised money from affiliated churches and local communities and bought prepaid meals from small restaurants desperate for business after the city’s dining restrictions reduced their operating capacity by half.

Mei, a restaurant employee who only gave her preferred name, said that the program could not cover the loss, but “little is better than none.” Kum Heung Thai, the restaurant Mei worked at, has received 120 coupons that are equivalent to $4,800 in total.

Thus far, the campaign has distributed more than 18,000 coupons to more than 80 partner restaurants in three months.

“It is a win-win situation,” Susanna Hui, a senior manager at the organization, said. “We pay the restaurants to help their businesses, and they provide food to those in need.”

Other organizations see that the issue of food insecurity comes in tandem with food inequality.

Feeding Hong Kong, a Hong Kong-based charity that works on bridging the gap between food surplus and the communities in need, tackles the issue higher up the supply chain.

Driven by the mission of reducing food waste, the organization collects food that loses commercial value from corporate partners such as Cathay Pacific, Pizza Express and Wellcome, a chain supermarket in Hong Kong, and redistributes the food to its affiliated community centers. But the pandemic has complicated the logistics and forced the group to scale back some operations because of safety concerns. Its centralized kitchen, which used to cater cooked food and provide seating before the pandemic broke out, is temporarily closed and replaced by delivery of food staples.

“Volunteering has [also] been disrupted this year, though we were able to keep our warehouse open throughout the year to continue to serve those in need,” Lawrence Wong, the fundraising and communications manager at Feeding Hong Kong, mentioned in an email response.

The Food Resources Recycling Centre under the Conservancy Association shares a similar mission but executes on a smaller scale.

A community center stationed in the Tsuen Wan neighborhood, it collects leftover fresh food from wet markets in the neighborhood every evening. The combination and size of the food collected varies every day, and the staff would estimate its haul onsite before notifying the people who signed up for the scheme to collect the food bags.

“Usually, we have fruits and vegetables, sometimes meat, too,” Natalie Chow, the center manager at the food recycling center, said. “But it really depends on what the stores have left that day.”

The donated fresh food could be rotten or bruised, so volunteers coached by a certified hygiene supervisor inspect the quality of the food before packing it up.

It’s relatively easy to join their scheme, Chow said, comparing it to similar food assistance programs listed on the Social Welfare Department’s website.

“We don’t ask for a lot of documentation, and in some cases, social workers would refer to us those who are not qualified for any government aid,” Chow added.

Edward Cheung, a project manager at Tin Shui Wai Community Development Network, said that it is because that most food recycling programs stress reducing wastes instead of aiding certain groups.

“Unlike food banks that are heavily funded [by various sources, including the government], we focus more on reducing wastes,” Cheung said. “Food assistance is like the icing of the cake.”

The impact of food assistance goes beyond the instant relief of hunger.

One of the beneficiaries of the church network’s food coupon, who was unemployed, ended up getting a part-time job at one of the partner restaurants. “He later returned the last coupon out of the three he received and said that he hoped the coupon could reach someone who is in greater need,” Hui said.

Danny Wong, the founder of Love Family Charity, resonates with Hui’s joy in witnessing a greater community impact brought by their work.

Wong, a self-made entrepreneur, started his charity as an individual act of kindness at the door of his car dealership. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, he offered free lunch boxes regularly to the elderly in the neighborhood, sometimes engaging students from the local schools.

“It’s also about teaching the younger generation how to respect and take care of the elderly,” Wong said during a phone interview.

Students would spend the lunch break packing up the meal, which usually comes with fruits and drinks, and delivering them to the elderly face-to-face.

“You can see how they change from being completely silent to greeting the ‘grandmas grandpas’ from afar,” Wong said delightedly.