What are HK’s charities, businesses doing to help the needy? As inflation amid Covid-19 pandemic bites, do-gooders band together in bid to lighten food burden on city’s poor

04-Dec-2021 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 5:02 AM Print This Post

As Hong Kong grapples with runaway inflation and a still-raging pandemic, charities, food banks, NGOs and businesses have entered the fray to help the needy. In the second of a three-part series, Denise Tsang and Fiona Sun look at the raft of well-intentioned efforts.

As early as 8am on a Monday, a queue of elderly people have started forming outside Chung Kee Congee restaurant in Hong Kong’s bustling Causeway Bay shopping hub.

Among the first to arrive were Lam and her husband, both 67 and retired restaurant workers who live nearby. They wanted to make sure they were in line for the day’s special and one of their favourites minced beef congee.

The restaurant gives away free congee to the elderly every fortnight. Although it has told everyone the food will be handed out at 2pm, people still arrive early, prepared to wait hours.

Lam and her husband, regulars in the line, live in their own flat in an old tenement building in Wan Chai. Since retiring about two years ago, they have been relying on their savings to get by. Their only son lives with his family.

When food prices started rising earlier this year, the couple tried to find work again but were turned away by restaurants because of their age and the sluggish state of the catering sector amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

They have taken instead to queuing for free hot meals and provisions handed out by restaurants and charities.

“We can only try to save money here and there,” Lam said.

Chung Kee Congee’s owner, Lam Chi-kai, said the 10-year-old eatery prepared 150 bowls of congee to give away each time.

“There are always more than 150 elderly people coming for a bowl. It is hard to turn away any of them, so we always end up giving out many more,” he said.

Some of his customers also donate money, mostly HK$500 (US$64) at a time, to sponsor congee meals for those in need.

“There are many poor people living in this area and we want to help,” he said.

With inflation driving up prices of food, fuel and other costs of living, Hong Kong’s grass-roots families have found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

Numerous charities, food banks, NGOs and businesses have responded with a variety of efforts on their own or through partnerships to help such households.

A main focus is on feeding the needy, with thousands of free meals served daily, and packs of groceries and staple food items handed out to families.

The Social Welfare Department has also been working with seven NGOs to provide those in need with short-term help, including basic food items, for up to eight weeks at a time.

There were 19,438 applications for help last year compared with 13,142 in 2019. As of August this year, there were 16,179 applications.

The scheme was handed out 55,864 times last year, up from 38,405 times in 2019. It has been given 48,584 times as of August this year, according to department data.

‘There are many newcomers who need help’

At Yau Ma Tei, one of the city’s poorest districts, Vietnamese restaurant Viet Street gives away more than 200 hot meals every day to those who are struggling, including the unemployed and the poor.

The eatery is run by social enterprise Gingko House, which operates five restaurants and two stores.

Its social worker, Ray Tam Kin-fai, said the Yau Ma Tei outlet started out selling meals to those in need at HK$12, well below the normal average price of HK$40, but still many could not afford it.

It started giving away the meals for free in December 2019. As demand grew, the group’s other restaurants and stores across the city started giving out free meals in March last year.

They now give away a total of about 900 hot meals every day, but more individuals and families keep turning up every week.

“Some found jobs and stopped coming for the meals, but there are many newcomers who need help,” Tam said.

Food Angel, a programme started by the Bo Charity Foundation in 2011, has also seen more people receiving its free hot meals and cold cooked ones which can last longer. Each person receives up to 10 meals a week.

Phyllis Wong Shun-wah, its communication manager, said the programme now handed out about 15,000 meals a day, up from about 10,000 before the pandemic.

“The pandemic prompted more people to ask for our food assistance, and the demand has been high since,” she said.

The ParknShop supermarket chain supported Food Angel earlier this year, collecting 80,000 food items and raising HK$1.8 million to support the INGO in distributing 130,000 meals and 40,000 food packs.

A number of groups operating food banks have also stepped up activities to ease the burden on low-income families.

INGO Food Grace, which has been collecting unsold vegetables, fruit and other food from markets to prepare meals for the underprivileged since 2009, has been doing more since the pandemic began.

It hands out rice, noodles, cooking oil and other packaged food provisions twice a month to about 700 households.

Project officer William Wong Wai-lam said most of the recipients were elderly people, but more low-income families sought help over the past two years as breadwinners lost their jobs or earned less.

Each of its four centres received more than 10 applications a month for help, compared with five or six in 2019, and Wong noticed a slight increase over the past three months from the beginning of the year.

Food Grace relies on donations of provisions from businesses and individuals. Wong said donations had dropped by about a fifth at each centre over the past two months.

“The entire sector of food recycling has felt the draining of food donations,” Wong said, adding that donors might also have been affected by rising food prices.

Another group, Feeding Hong Kong, has been collecting surplus stocks from food companies to redistribute to about 150 charities that provide meals assistance for the needy.

Demand for its food packs, which include rice, noodles, cooking oil and canned food, had remained high since the pandemic started, said project director Edmond Leung.

But rising food prices in recent months have driven up the cost of buying from its suppliers by about 10 per cent.

“The result is that with a similar budget, we can produce fewer food packs,” Leung said, adding that the group managed to maintain its donations from businesses and individuals.

The charity provided 55,000 food packs last year and 45,000 so far this year, he said.

Foodlink, an INGO that collects safe-to-eat surplus food from restaurants, bakeries and hotels to deliver to the needy, received a HK$3 million donation from Wellcome supermarkets last month.

The INGO’s top executives were moved to tears when they received the cheque from Ian McLeod, chief executive officer of DFI Retail Group, which runs the supermarket chain.

The donation gives much-needed support to Foodlink, which saw contributions from the stricken sector shrivel by 70 per cent after Covid-19 restrictions kicked in last year.

The supermarket chain promised to donate 50 HK cents to the INGO from every kilogram of rice of its house brand Yu Pin King sold in the coming year, with a target of raising HK$5 million.

McLeod said the chain invested HK$40 million over the past 18 months to lower prices partly by developing its own brands that sell at prices about 20 per cent lower than other brands.

Platforms, apps and bonds

Rising inflation and food prices have also prompted some individuals to get together to buy daily necessities in bulk for themselves and to give away to the needy.

Winson Siu Tze-kit, 47, and two churchmates set up online shopping platform Home Stocker a year ago from scratch after seeing residents’ panic-buying spree for rice and toilet paper at the start of the pandemic.

The trio source about 100 items, including rice, canned food, snacks and health care products directly from suppliers, with a very thin profit margin to sustain their effort.

“We want to help families pay less for daily necessities while encouraging others to give away to the underprivileged what they order on our platform,” said Siu, a contractor for audio systems used at concerts and events.

He replenishes stocks with new products of drinks, food or necessities imported from South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand as often as every week.

There are about 60 households using the platform actively to shop, compared with only 12 at the beginning.

“These shoppers are very smart,” Siu said.

From time to time he and his partners give away face masks, sanitisers and food to grass-roots families in Kwun Tong.

They operate the online shopping platform on a part-time basis and sometimes make deliveries themselves.



Category: Hong Kong

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