Amid the pandemic, a hot meal is a luxury and a privilege—and organisations large and small have stepped up to help those going hungry in the city

In Hong Kong, many are having a tough time as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, from the businesses struggling to stay afloat to those who have lost their jobs—the city’s unemployment rate rose to 6.2 per cent, its highest in more than 15 years and, with no clear end to the situation in sight, individuals and organisations are stepping up to do what they can to help Hong Kong's most vulnerable communities.

These are dire times: between 2011-2012 and 2017-2018, the number of registered street sleepers in Hong Kong more than doubled from 511 to 1,127—in 2020, that increased to over 1,300, though experts believe the actual number would be far greater—even double—given the stigma attached to being homeless. According to 2018 figures released by the government, poverty in the city is at a record high: 1.4 million people, or 20.4 per cent of the population, live below the poverty line with 2020 looking to add to that number.

As a result, more than ever people are going hungry. While headlines earlier in the year made light of residents fighting over and stockpiling bags of rice and tins of spam amid fears of a break in the supply chain, the reality is that for many in Hong Kong, having enough food has always been an intense struggle.

Related: Five Ways To Give Back In Hong Kong

Food charities such as Feeding Hong Kong have put out pleas to the public as donations and volunteer numbers both dwindled over the past few months, with Covid-19 and social distancing measures affecting supply as well as manpower. In an open letter, the charity outlined how in February alone their volunteer numbers dropped by 80 per cent while some of their regular channels of surplus food, such as the airport, dropped to 50 per cent. In response, the team set up a virtual food drive to direct financial donations to the purchase of shelf-stable essentials such as rice, dried noodles and canned goods and, through perseverance, still managed to donate 610,000 meals between February and May to those that are most vulnerable.

With travel stunted for the long term, Feeding Hong Kong have also partnered with Asia Miles so that any extra miles you have can be used to fund meals to be given to vulnerable low-income families. For every 1,820 Asia Miles, your donation will translate into 20 meals for a family food parcel; the campaign has been running since May, and will last until the end of August.

Other organisations such as Impact Hong Kong, which focuses on helping the city’s homeless, have been working overtime as the situation continues to affect society’s most vulnerable. The Guestroom, the charity’s drop-in centre in Lai Chi Kok that acts as a safe space for the homeless community, has a community fridge as well as food service—each week, they serve upwards of 2,000 meals and their next target is to open a restaurant, My Kind Of Cafe, where they will employ more people off the streets to serve an additional 1,000 meals per day to people in need. Impact is also one of the four beneficiaries of a recently launched initiative, Payout Giveback, which was set up to help Hongkongers to direct their HK$10,000 government handout to any of the four charities; apart from Impact, beneficiaries include HER Fund, Love 21, and Zubin Foundation. "Our very first thought should be about care, and that's something that Impact HK is really focused on," says founder Jeff Rotmeyer. 

Recently they partnered with Breadline by HK Food Works, a crowdsourcing app by Dr Daisy Tam, a professor at Baptist University whose work centres on food systems. Tam’s Breadline app connects bakeries directly with volunteers who arrange pick-ups and drop offs at charities such as Foodlink and Green Hour. "The idea of Breadline has always been to optimise food rescue—to maximise the use of idle resources, be it volunteers, food, time or travel," Tam tells us. "We realised that the system needs to be decentralised so that people can respond in a more agile manner to the situation on the ground." While bread runs for August are suspended until further notice, in July the organisation collected more than 2,700 pieces of bread that would have otherwise gone to landfill.

Related: What It's Like To Go On A Kindness Walk

Elsewhere, organisations such as Dignity Kitchen have been hunkering down to do what they can for the community. Their tagline “made with love, served with dignity” is doubly meaningful as the organisation employs differently-abled staff to cook and serve at the Mongkok kitchen, giving them the chance to work in a restaurant, an opportunity that often isn’t readily available to them. Dignity Kitchen delivers between 40-100 bento box lunches daily to homeless hostels, service centres and to those on the streets, in addition to running a pay-it-forward scheme where diners purchasing meals from the restaurant can choose to donate additional meals (at HK$50 each) to those who need them. Since launching the scheme in March 2020, visitors have contributed more than 2,000 vouchers that have gone towards more than 400 meals per month. The restaurant also just announced that diners can donate to the pay-it-forward scheme via bank transfer—just remember to send them a screenshot of your deposit slip.

On the first day of the dine-in ban in Hong Kong, the team posted this poignant message on their social media channels: “It's 12:12p.m on Wednesday. Today marks the first day for all dine-in services to stop temporarily. Also, it just started raining heavily in Mong Kok, where our food court is located.Yet we're still here. We're still running. We're still packing and delivering bento boxes to those who need it most. We're still providing opportunities for our staff. We're still here to serve you your favorite laksa or chicken Rice. Here, morale is as high as ever, because we know with your continued support, we can get through the rainy days.”

The pay-it-forward concept is essentially a triple win: for the restaurant, for the beneficiary of the free meal, and of course for the person who bought the meal in the first place. And it looks like the idea is starting to pick up steam around Hong Kong: starting from 8 August, Eaton Food Hall at Eaton Hong Kong in Jordan will be launching their own pay-it-forward scheme in collaboration with three of their tenants: the hotel’s own Flower Years, Vietnamese restaurant Fûhn, and Souper Kitchen. In addition to participating in the scheme, the restaurants will each pledge to donate free meals daily of their own accord.

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Above Eaton Food Hall (Photo: Courtesy of Eaton Hong Kong)
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Above Pho by Fuhn (Photo: Courtesy of Eaton Hong Kong)

Anyone who is in need is welcome to claim a pay-it-forward meal, with no questions asked. “Pay it forward is a faith based system. At Eaton HK we do not judge or discriminate and understand that the traditional concept of what a person in need may look like can be misleading,” says Dirk Dalichau, the hotel’s Managing Director. “We trust our community to only ask for what they truly need, since need comes in all shapes and sizes. A person could be completely destitute or suffering from a pay cut or temporary furlough, and hence it is imperative that we maintain a dignified process without questions asked. During this time, we will of course continue to implement our stringent hygiene protocol to keep everyone safe.”

It’s not the first time the hotel has acted with a social conscience; in July, following the government’s short-lived all-day dining ban, the hotel opened up its ballroom on the second floor to offer space for workers without anywhere else to go to enjoy their lunch. They’ve have also been partnering with Sister Bento, a local social enterprise focusing on helping vulnerable single mothers from low income groups and underprivileged children who live primarily in the Jordan and Sham Shui Po districts—many who live in the areas’ notorious coffin homes. Prioritising nutrition and care, the initiative by Sister Bento aims to provide flexible work as well as connections to day care support. Eaton Hong Kong’s volunteers have been assisting the social enterprise with distributing care packages filled with necessities such as rice, cooking oil, toilet paper, bread, milk and eggs.

At the time of writing, the campaign is nearly halfway to its fundraising goal of HK$10,000 to purchase more supplies and to mobilise volunteers—donations of HK$150 will already provide enough resources to create care packages for five families. 

As Tam of Breadline summarises, Covid-19 has shown to have devastating results. "Many beneficiaries of food rescue NGOs have been affected—they are usually the precarious workers, those with temp jobs, low incomes, and many have lost their jobs during this period. Community organisations try to do what they can, but food donation has gone down while some charities have had to shift to home office, which means that they can't collect while others have had to suspend their services temporarily," she explains. "All of these measures are completely understandable and responsible, but it goes to show how disruptions such as times like these always hit the vulnerable the most. Any little helps, or rather, every little helps." 

As we all know, there is so much power in food—and let’s not forget how a good meal can feed the soul. Over the last half year we have implored you to support Hong Kong's F&B industry, and we hope you will continue to do so. And, if you are able to do so, why not also consider how you can help those whose only ask is a simple bowl of rice?

To find out more about the organisations above and to make donations, please visit their websites below:

Feeding Hong Kong

Dignity Kitchen

Eaton Hong Kong

Sister Bento

Impact Hong Kong

Breadline by HK Food Works

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