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Thousands going hungry, eating poorly in affluent Hong Kong

By Megan Leung and Doris Yu

Shortly after 6 p.m., when many people are rushing home from work, is the golden hour for grocery shopping in Hong Kong’s wet markets. That is when 50-year-old Leung Chun-wah, who works as a construction site cleaner, does her daily food shopping.

Most days after work in North Point, Leung makes a 42-minute MTR journey to Tsuen Wan, then walks 10 to 15 minutes to Yeung Uk market to pick up ingredients for dinner. The prices are cheaper here than in her local market, and just before the stalls close for the evening is the best time for bargains.

From Yeung Uk, Leung takes a half hour bus journey to get home, which is in Tsing Yi. It is exhausting but worth it for the long-term cost savings.

Leung also knows which methods to use to cut cooking-related costs. “When I cook, I use all the compartments in the rice cooker, steam a tail of fish and make a meatcake at the same time so that I can save some electricity.”

To stay within their budget, Leung and her family of three rarely eat out. “Meals are very expensive around where I work, so if there are leftovers from the night before, I will bring and reheat them for lunch,” she continues.

Reducing food expenses is a common strategy for lower-income households. With costs such as rent, electricity and water fees increasing drastically, plus tuition-related fees for children, households living on low earnings and limited allowances have no choice but to adjust their spending on variable costs such as food.

The concept of hunger is often linked to starvation. In Hong Kong hunger is regularly overlooked because people are not starving. There is a welfare system and Short-term Food Assistance, more commonly known as “food banks”. The word “hunger” seems to have no place in this developed city and financial centre.

However, relative deprivation does exist in Hong Kong; the food consumed by lower-income households can be less nutritious and of poorer quality compared to the general population. According to “Trends and Implications of Poverty and Social Disadvantages in Hong Kong: A Multi-disciplinary and Longitudinal Study”, a 2014 study conducted by the Social Work Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, 40,000 people cannot afford to have three meals a day and 70,000 people do not have fresh fruit and vegetables to eat every day.

The World Health Organisation recommends an adult has at least 400g of fruit and vegetables each day to maintain a balanced diet. However, most food banks only provide rice, noodles, milk powder and canned food which are only good enough to provide temporary assistance for those who have immediate difficulties coping with basic food needs.

In order to satisfy nutritional needs which fresh food such as red meat, fish and vegetables provides, people still need to buy food from shops and markets. But since real estate giants are the dominant owners of local markets and shopping malls, people may end up paying higher prices not for better quality food but because prices are pushed up by added costs, mainly rent.

A survey conducted by the Labour Party in 2013 found that residents in Tin Shui Wai, one of the poorest districts, paid more for food items than those in other districts. Apart from the two main supermarket chains, most grocery stores in Tin Shui Wai are in markets managed by Link Reit.

Chan Chi Wai, 37, owner of Sze Sun Car Noodles in Lei Yuen Plaza, Sha Tin, is one of the many small independent businesses affected by the market monopoly. “Before the Link took over from the Housing Authority, the [monthly] rent was around HK$ 6,000 to HK$7,000, but now,” he says, making a gesture to indicate HK$20,000. “There used to be a lot of people here; in just six years after Link took over, many shops went out of business,” he adds.

With the chains moving in, Chan says small independent businesses like his are struggling to survive. He can now only afford to open for lunch and at teatime, mainly serving students. “People prefer to cook for themselves now, eating out is expensive, they can’t afford it,” he says.

But even when they cook at home, lower-income families cannot avoid having to buy the ingredients from the markets and supermarkets managed by the Link Reit. Among the worst affected are the elderly. The government’s Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report 2015 shows that 30 per cent of the elderly are living in poverty.

Leung Sau-bik, 82, lives in Tin Shui Wai New Town and says she and her neighbours lack access to cheap fresh food.

“Many fresh food shops have closed, so we have no choice but to visit Wellcome,” says Leung. “Many of us depend on Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA), how often can we buy food at Wellcome?”

After Link Reit’s Tin Yiu Wet Market closed in February, the Wellcome supermarket in Tin Tsz Shopping Centre became the only convenient local grocery in the neighbourhood. But Leung says elderly CSSA recipients can only afford to shop in traditional markets on a daily basis. For an able-bodied elderly person like her, the CSSA payment is HK$3,150 per month.

Food for Thought staff collecting food in Tin Shing Shopping Centre.
Food for Thought staff collecting food in Tin Shing Shopping Centre.

Every Wednesday at 7 p.m., Leung joins a line of elderly people waiting for food donations in the basketball court of Tin Yiu Estate. Each of them receives a bag of surplus vegetables donated by the market stalls in Tin Shing Chinese Market. They can also optionally pick up canned food donated by the dry goods stores.

The donations are organised by the Food for Thought project. Every working day, members of the project collect an average of 183 kg of food produce and take turns to transport and distribute food to different public housing estates. When Varsity visited Tin Yiu Estate, all the food produce was cleared in an hour.