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How enterprises can use food as a basis to empower marginalised people in their communities

Food is a catalyst for connection and comfort, a symbol of culture and collaboration that unites across divides. Its nourishment often goes beyond what we eat, as restaurants across Asia are showing by using food as a basis for enterprises that create social change and transform lives.

Hong Kong-based social enterprise Gingko House empowers elderly people by giving them job opportunities while feeding people experiencing hunger through its Love Project, a programme that provides free meals to beneficiaries, who include homeless people, low-income families, senior residents and those who are unemployed. Thanks to volunteers and donors, 1,000 rice boxes are given out each day among the four venues. “Our main focus is hiring senior citizens with financial and emotional needs,” says Kenneth Choi, Gingko House’s director of business development.

Gingko’s story began when CEO, Joyce Mak, worked for a depression hotline and took a high number of calls from men over the age of 55 who had recently retired. “Whether they retired voluntarily or were forced into retirement, these individuals felt like they had lost their purpose in life,” explains Choi on Mak’s behalf. “The idea was to give them [a sense of] purpose again, and, hopefully, that they would be able to enjoy a fruitful and meaningful life, even after retirement.”

According to the latest census figures, one in five people in the city is elderly. Yet ageism is rife, especially in the workplace, where senior citizens are considered less able. Choi adds, “People will say that they’re too slow or clumsy and keep dropping things, but some of these seniors have years of restaurant experience… and they want to contribute to society.”

What started as a small snack shop in 2006 is now an established business with an organic farm, catering department and restaurant venues serving everything from international cuisine to Cantonese food. During the pandemic, the social enterprise also expanded its resources into a cold kitchen that sells frozen goods and stocks vending machines with food for beneficiaries in response to restaurant restrictions.

To future-proof Gingko House’s mission, Choi plans to streamline the process with technology. “I want to put these vending machines all over Hong Kong so that our beneficiaries can access the rice boxes and other daily necessities as and when they need them. I also want to employ a new contactless card system which will help us collect data for more targeted support. For example, if someone fails to pick up their rice box that day, we can determine if we need to follow up or if a check-in is required.”

Mohd Adli Yahya, a father of six based in Subang Jaya in Malaysia’s Klang Valley, was also thinking ahead when he started the Autism Cafe Project in 2017. Adli left his job as a corporate professional to carve a future path for his 23-year-old son, Luqman, who has low-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD). “Securing a job for an individual like him is almost impossible. He can’t speak and has limited ability. Who is going to hire him?” says Adli. “Will he be able to live his life to the fullest?”

Adli started the project to equip his son with the necessary skills to move towards independence, but the initiative soon developed to train other young adults who are on the spectrum. The team, whom Adli affectionately refers to as “the boys” (more men are diagnosed with ASD than women), works at the café, carrying out tasks guided by simple instructions. As a result, the team can make dishes such as spaghetti bolognese or chicken rice and earn an income.

However, much like other restaurants around the world, the pandemic hit the Autism Cafe Project with challenges. “Everybody was caught off guard. We relied on walk-in customers, but with the restrictions, no one was coming into the café anymore. That’s why we are concentrating on catering and bulk orders now.” During this time, the café initiated a crowdfunding scheme to make food for those in need, such as children in orphanages and homeless people. “This gives the boys work, sustains the organisation and it’s helping others,” says Adli. “Now, the boys will ask if the meal packs are for the orphans, and when we say it is, their faces light up.”

For Francis Reyes, founder and CEO of the Caravan Food Group in the Philippines, it was a chance encounter in his youth that sparked the idea for Elait, the rolled ice cream business staffed by deaf workers that he established in 2017. The inspiration for the company struck when Reyes was shopping for clothes one time and was approached by a deaf member of staff who did his best to assist him. “It felt like that was the epitome of great service. He did not need to say anything, but I could feel his genuine care while he was helping me,” recalls Reyes. “I figured, why not showcase it in my enterprise and people will see that they are just as adept as those capable of hearing?”

His staff are given the systems and tools to best serve their customers, such as visual menus, dual screens that also display orders to the customer and, at some venues, buttons on the tables that are connected to wristbands and vibrate when a customer calls for service. Workers develop skills, earn more than minimum wage as the service charge is shared among the team, and can advance their careers with access to leadership programmes. “We have opened opportunities for them [to thrive],” says Reyes. “They’ve found a place where they feel they belong.”

The success of organisations like Gingko House, Autism Cafe Project and Caravan Group is having a ripple effect across the region. In Singapore, western chain Eighteen Chefs rehabilitates troubled youths and those with criminal convictions; Indonesian restaurant Fair Warung Bale in Bali funds public health services for the poverty-stricken; and Steps with Theera in Thailand nurtures young adults with disabilities and special needs at its coffee shops while zero-waste venue Na Cafe at Bangkok 1899 provides vocational training programmes for at-risk youth and urban refugees.

After being encouraged by the response to Elait, Reyes opened a bakery called Overdoughs before expanding with Overdoughs Cafe and an e-commerce platform for cold-pressed juices. He says, “We want to promote inclusivity; hence our company mission is to serve great-tasting food with excellent service from our deaf partners. We look beyond limitations and see everyone’s potential.”

To diversify his business, Adli also hopes to venture into agriculture and train his team in vertical farming to provide them with another skill set. “This is about building a better future for our boys,” he says. “Individuals with ASD have potential. We just need to open the doors of opportunity for them.“We are creating entrepreneurs here.”

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