Earlier this month I was pleased to follow up on prior long distance communications and visit Gabrielle Kirstein and her energetic team at Feeding Hong Kong, accompanied by my colleague Mark Mitchell of Supercool Asia Pacific. This visit coincided nicely with conference work earlier that week on reducing food loss and waste through an improved cold chain at Carrier Corporation’s World Cold Chain Summit in Vietnam.
Having worked closely with food banks in the U.S. and engaged in food recovery and redistribution efforts with Rolling Harvest Food Rescue, I was anxious to assess similarities and differences between food recovery efforts in Hong Kong and the U.S.
Feeding Hong Kong members “get” the nonsensical coexistence of hunger and excessive food waste. As noted on the organization’s website, 3,400 tonnes of food waste is sent to landfills in Hong Kong daily while one million people (about one in seven) live in poverty and lack access to nutritious meals. That level of waste equates to more than seven fully-loaded Boeing 747s, according to Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department. Feeding Hong Kong seeks to bridge that gap by linking food companies with excess supplies of food with charities in need of it, providing the logistical connection at no charge.
Like most food bank operations in the U.S., Feeding Hong Kong focuses on:
- Rescuing quality food from upstream sources that would otherwise go to waste
- Redistributing that food to charities in need
- Collaborating with and engaging volunteers in the recovery and redistribution process, and
- Partnering with community members to raise awareness about excessive levels of food waste and hunger and creating positive societal change
The organization has been engaged in this laudable effort since 2011, starting (as the story goes) with the rescue of a single pallet of bread destined for the trash bin but diverted to compost – and from that point grew into a broader effort to learn more about what happened to good food not eaten in Hong Kong. In the process, the group came in contact with donors and charities and learned that what was missing was an element of scale to link those with surplus and those in need. A mission emerged: Fight hunger and reduce the amount of quality food going to landfills in Hong Kong by collecting that food, storing it, and redistributing it – while also raising awareness about hunger and food waste. Since inception, Feeding Hong Kong has rescued over 1,300 tonnes of food while connecting with more than 200 food organizations and 70 charities (supporting roughly 3.2 million meals). And well it should, for beyond the hunger challenge, Hong Kong has a serious environmental problem regarding wasted food: It is running out of space to put it. As indicated in its Blueprint for Sustainable Use of Resources (2013-2022), Hong Kong has 13 closed landfills, and three remaining open landfills that are slated to close in 2019 when they reach their designed capacity. That’s no longer a long-term issue, that’s an immediate issue that begs the question: In less than two years, where will Hong Kong put 3,400 tonnes of wasted food every day?
Clearly Hong Kong needs a plan regarding food waste, and more importantly, it needs urgency. A look in any direction at the clusters of towering skyscrapers, teeming population, undulating terrain, and lack of open space quickly reinforces the need for limiting the amount of food waste in landfills, which currently amounts to nearly 40% of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) disposal. Preventing food waste in the first place is the best solution, while efficient food recovery efforts at scale to optimize use of existing surplus food resources follow. That’s where organizations like Feeding Hong Kong come into play – providing the bridge to put good food to use while countries address systemic issues and transition to drastic reduction in overproduction and root causes of poverty.
We discussed the landfill issue during our visit. Feeding Hong Kong members are monitoring the situation and realize that at a point in the not-too-distant future, they could be faced with a sharp influx of food as organizations struggle to find a place for surplus. A sudden shift will certainly provide logistical challenges in terms of labor, infrastructure, and storage capacity – particularly in terms of refrigerator and storage capacity. It will also provide heightened challenges in terms of monitoring food quality, which obviously must be managed carefully to ensure safety at all times. On the plus side, it is likely that the unavoidable reaction to the landfill constraints will result in more fresh food (such as fruits and vegetables) becoming available to recovery agencies. Such high-quality calories are sorely needed by the charitable organizations – whose constituents often lack healthy food options.
The Feeding Hong Kong team noted that hunger is a serious issue among seniors in Hong Kong (as it is in the U.S.) – as many individuals fall below the poverty line shortly after they exit the work force. They struggle to obtain healthy food, and the lack of kitchen facilities (as a result of a high level of subdivided apartments) limits their ability to prepare and cook such products. Further, many charitable organizations lack the capacity to handle fresh (and frozen) food — a common problem in the U.S. as well. Feeding Hong Kong members noted that the percentage of fresh food in their total mix is small, something that they would very much like to change. A key limiting factor to fresh and frozen food donations is the lack of a U.S.-like Good Samaritan law, which leaves retailers reluctant to donate such items due to liability fears. Gabrielle noted that implementation of smart regulation would likely change that.
It is clear that food banking in Hong Kong presents a number of challenges. The first involves the vertical aspect – for which I was unprepared. Space is limited, and high rise buildings are the norm, so while I am accustomed to ground level food banking operations, visiting Feeding Hong Kong’s operation required an elevator ride up several floors. It’s an adjustment to be in a food bank and look out a wall of windows to a cluster of skyscrapers, and it’s more of an adjustment to see racks of food and pallet jacks moving food around several stories up. Along with the employees, the food has to travel “up” several stories by elevator, too. And to ship it out, it has to go back down again. All of this movement requires a lot of added effort, and it strains the cold chain.
Similarly, many of the downstream charities are located in high rises, so delivery involves waiting for elevators and the added complexity of moving food into them. Add to this the challenge of getting around in Hong Kong due to high population density, the difficulty in getting in and out of high traffic areas, the difficulty in parking at distribution sites, and tight pick-up windows – and one begins to understand the added challenges of maximizing driver (and general operations) time in Hong Kong.
Gabrielle believes that the role that Feeding Hong Kong plays – the logistics to move food efficiently from donor to recipient – is the key to minimizing hunger and food waste together. And she thinks that upstream food system actors with excess food are beginning to realize the triple bottom line benefits of donating it. With greater collaboration among all of the food supply chain stakeholders, she believes that their impact can be greatly magnified.
Multiple food system issues must be addressed with urgency in Hong Kong – including education, food waste prevention, and food optimization programs of a circular nature. In a region of extremely limited landfill space, implementing strong food waste prevention plans is of course most critical. The system of perpetual overproduction must be changed to avoid the needless waste of resources and the associated pollutive effect. Further down the Hierarchy, organizations like Feeding Hong Kong will need assistance with warehouse space, refrigeration and freezer space, logistical expertise, knowledge and data sharing, etc.
While I found many unique challenges to food banking in Hong Kong, one key similarity with my experiences in the U.S. involves the dedication and passion of the Feeding Hong Kong team to reduce hunger by reducing wasted food. That’s a mission we can all get behind.