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Leung Siu-lung, who greets many of the elderly people by name while handing out bags of food, sees a relationship between Hong Kong’s hunger problem and the CSSA scheme. Leung, the organizing officer of the Food for Thought programme, has noticed that most of the beneficiaries are CSSA recipients.

Food waiting to be donated in the basketball court in Tin Yiu Estate.
Food waiting to be donated in the basketball court in Tin Yiu Estate.

Mainstream food banks will usually decline applications from CSSA claimants as they are not eligible to receive further assistance. Without food bank membership, they have to find cheap food by all means.

For instance, Leung knows a female CSSA claimant who commutes from Tin Shui Wai to Sham Shui Po just to buy fruit and vegetables at cheaper prices, making good use of the HK$2 MTR fare concession for senior citizens. For Leung, the safety net of CSSA does not guarantee food security. Instead, the elder CSSA claimants have to be frugal when buying food.

That is why Food for Thought does not impose means tests like other food banks do. Everyone in the communities they serve is eligible to receive food – which is always fresh rather than pre-packaged.

“We do not restrict the background of our beneficiaries, you can take the food if you wish to save it from going to the waste; we want to remove labels like ‘leftover food is for the poor’,” Leung says.

Wong Hung, an associate professor of the Department of Social Work at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), points out that, apart from the elderly, there was another group overlooked by welfare policy-makers. Wong says the tightening of the residence requirement for applying for CSSA in 2004 from one year to seven years created a group of mothers dubbed “clay pot rice” or煲仔飯.

“Clay pot rice” cases involved single mothers who were new arrivals from the Mainland. They could not apply for CSSA but their locally-born children could. Therefore, the mothers lived on their children’s subsidy, which was like “cooking and feeding on their own sons in a clay pot”.

In 2014, the Court of Final Appeal overthrew the seven-year residence requirement. Wong recalls that, during the decade between 2004 and 2014, the “clay pot rice” families could not eat well. .

Being deprived of food is not just about failing to fill an empty stomach. Wong says that apart from being a biological necessity food has a social function. Hong Kong people value shared meals because they function as a medium for bonding and socialising among members of the family or community.

Unfortunately, for those who are already struggling to simply to fill their bellies, food as a means of maintaining relationships is a luxury.

Many poor people refuse to dine out with friends because they want to avoid being in awkward situations when friends offer pay their bill. According to Wong’s recent study on deprivation of the socially disadvantaged, 20 per cent of respondents have meals out with friends and family less than once a month.

“Food is not just a necessity to poor people, it can show their social disadvantage and deprivation which they would rather keep to themselves,” says Wong.

Lo Chuen-chun, a 49-year-old homemaker, has been cooking for her father and younger brother for eight years. As many homemakers do, she sometimes buys vegetables and fruit at an extremely low price, like a portion of white gourd for HK$5.

With her mother living in a nursing home and her younger brother always out working night shifts, the family hardly ever gathers together at the dinner table. One day, her brother came home and re-heated the meal Lo had cooked earlier. Frustrated by the low-quality food, he went to a fast food restaurant instead.

“Perhaps he was exhausted after work, and hence wanted to eat better,” says Lo. Dinner, the time that is supposed to maintain family relationships, was ruined by the substandard meal at home.

Lo and her family seldom eat out. Even a cup of milk tea is a luxury to be enjoyed every few months. “We go to restaurants twice a year, when it’s my parents’ birthday,” she says. “Except for those two days and lunar new year, we don’t eat out at all.”

Lo’s tone is one of frustration. A nutritious meal and a dinner with family are commonplace for many Hongkongers. But for Lo and thousands of others, they are a rare treat. The lack of healthy food not only deprives them of their health, but also the normal social interaction that comes with it.

Edited by Achlys Xu