20 June 2012
Feeding Hong Kong
Some 3,200 tonnes of food end up in local landfills each day, according to Gabrielle Kirstein, Executive Director of Feeding Hong Kong, a locally registered charity that seeks to bridge the gap between hunger and food waste.
Ms Kirstein moved to Hong Kong from the United Kingdom in 2003, and helped launch Feeding Hong Kong in 2009. The organisation works with 13 global and local companies to collect and distribute fresh food to those in need. In Six Questions, the former marketing and events executive explains how the group focuses not just on quantity but on the quality of food that gets distributed.
How did the idea of setting up a food bank in Hong Kong come about?
The turning point for me was when co-founder of Feeding Hong Kong, Christina Dean, described to me a site visit to a local supermarket, where I saw staff tip a pallet of freshly baked bread straight into the bin. Having had experience helping out in a homeless shelter growing up in Manchester, and knowing that there are organisations that donate food in other countries, I wanted to find out if there was a similar set-up in Hong Kong. What I found out was that the system here is very localised: a local shop would donate directly to a local charity. What was missing was something at scale, an organisation that any food company could call and drop off food for distribution to multiple charities.
How is Feeding Hong Kong different from other food charities?
We are the only food bank in Hong Kong to focus purely on donated surplus food. We work with retailers, distributors and manufacturers to donate food, which we then sort, store and distribute to our network of charities. So the first differentiating point is that we’re not purchasing but rescuing food. Second, we do not distribute to individuals but to charities.
The motivation behind Feeding Hong Kong was that we realised there is plenty of good food that goes to waste. At the same time, we realised that there were all these charities, operating on a community level and invisible to a large extent, and hundreds of NGOs running food programmes for people in need. But there was no coordinating body trying to link them, and that’s where we felt we could add value and help bridge that gap.
How does the organisation operate?
At the moment, we have 25 charities in our network that we deliver food to. Some of them have multiple welfare centres serving different client groups. They all receive dry stored goods – rice, noodles, canned food – from our warehouse. They either cook them to prepare meals or put together grocery bags. An additional six charities also receive food items from our bread programme, which covers bread, sandwiches, salads, and ready-to-eat food that’s been made fresh daily but unable to be sold by the stores.
We go through a detailed food evaluation process with our charity partners to understand what kind of foods they use on a monthly basis. So it’s understanding the foods they need and matching that in a quantity that makes a difference. We would love to be able to provide up to 50 per cent of the food for these charities. We’re not there at the moment, but that would very much be our goal.
The benefits for the charities work on different levels; by reducing their expenditure on food, they are able to redirect this money to other vital products and services. We aren't able to supply all their food needs, so with the money they've saved, we want to encourage them to focus on purchasing more nutritious choices, more fresh food and vegetables. Second, it’s helping them extend their services, so that they can feed more people as the need rises.
How do you identify and choose the charities you work with?
At the moment we’re focusing on small and medium-sized charities, because we feel that that’s where we could make the bigger difference. The charity must be a registered organisation that’s running a feeding programme in Hong Kong.
We then focus on people who are most in need: typically individuals who are living below the poverty line. It could be a shelter that’s serving meals, a crisis shelter for street sleepers, refugees, migrant workers or for victims of domestic abuse.
We also work with day centres providing support for people such as the elderly. We have organisations that run after-school programmes for children, supporting them with their homework and providing them some kind of meal. And we help charities that put together grocery food bags for individuals or families to take home and cook themselves.
How do you approach food donors?
As important as our relationships are with charities, we couldn’t do this without working in partnership with the food industry. So when we approach food companies, we want to offer them a solution. No matter how efficiently run a company is, there will always be an element of surplus. We say to a company, ‘if you have surplus of high-quality food, it doesn’t have to get thrown away.' A safe, sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative is to donate to us, and we will use it to feed people in need.
The message we want to send is that we provide a business solution that has a positive social impact. What we are doing is environmental as well as social, because we are also trying to reduce the amount of food waste that goes to landfills. We have three landfills in Hong Kong that are reaching capacity. So it’s a win for businesses, for the environment and for people in need, which means everyone benefits from what we are doing.
What we would really love to explore more is our relationship with importers and distributors, because they are the gatekeepers for food in Hong Kong: more than 90 per cent of food here is imported. For food charities in the United States and across Europe, the relationship with the food manufacturer is key, because they’re getting plenty of surplus stock directly from manufacturers. In Hong Kong, we’re not really manufacturing. The surplus is predominantly coming from importers, so that’s where the key relationships are.
Are you looking to develop Feeding Hong Kong in other areas?
Nutrition is very much a common theme in leadership seminars by the Global Food Network, which we are a part of. Now that we have an infrastructure in place, we’re starting to look more strategically at how we can address the issues of calories and nutrition.
We are looking at two programmes. We’re hoping to launch soon Chefs in the Community. This involves engaging professional chefs to volunteer their time and experience to look at the common items we have in our food bank and come up with ideas for meals and what fresh ingredients we should encourage our charities to purchase. We then want to bring these professional chefs into our charity network to teach the recipes they’ve put together in cooking classes. We also hope to encourage them to volunteer and work in the kitchens of the charities and share their experience with the people working in those kitchens, preparing meals for 50 to 100 people.
The other programme we’re also excited about is Edible Gardens, which is linked to nutrition. There is a trend in Hong Kong at the moment of turning rooftop spaces into gardens. We want to start our own urban garden on the rooftop of our warehouse, and encourage people who are willing to turn their urban spaces into gardens to grow an edible garden. Don’t just do a decorative garden; you can very easily grow basic herbs and vegetables. If you’re willing to donate part of it to Feeding Hong Kong, it means we’re able to bring fresh food and vegetables into our distribution chain and make sure that, alongside bread, canned food, rice and noodles, we can also supply fresh vegetables to our charity network.
Feeding Hong Kong