GBA Lifestyle News
By Kate Springer | February 21st, 2016

There is a lot of food surplus generated by businesses in Hong Kong, and there are a lot of hungry mouths where this perfectly good food can go to. The problem is in matching the demand with the supply, and that’s where organizations like Feeding Hong Kong come in. Executive director Gabrielle Kirstein explains.


A Little Background

Gabrielle Kirstein has a background in advertising and relocated from the UK to Hong Kong in 2003, eschewing corporate life and diving headlong into volunteering at local charities. Her passion was in social welfare issues and she became involved with a food waste project that ultimately turned into Feeding Hong Kong.

5 things you should know, according to Gabrielle Kirstein: 

1. Food waste gets a bad rep

We want to emphasize that food waste has its own connotations – people automatically think of scraps from plates and leftovers. What we really want to talk about is food surplus. We have enough food for everyone, but much of the problem has to do with logistics. We have surplus, we have demand — how can we make an efficient and effective way to redistribute everything? This is high quality food we’re talking, this is not food that’s past an expiry date and has gone off. Rather, this is food that no longer has a value to the company selling it, due to sensible commercial decisions.

2. The struggle is real 

A lot of people think poverty isn’t a problem in Hong Kong, and that’s a common misconception. People don’t always realize there is real poverty and real hunger in Hong Kong.

The shock was in realizing the extent that people in Hong Kong were struggling to access enough nutritious food every day. It’s about one in five people who don’t’ have enough to eat, and are surviving on $30 or less a day. What can you get for $10 per meal? It’s the cheapest thing at McDonalds or cup noodles. It’s not enough to cook fresh food or to eat healthily. There are so many people who are surviving on either not enough food or surviving on food that isn’t giving them the proper nutrition. In the short term it will fill them up, but in the long-term there are serious implications for their health.

The vast majority of whom we work with are low-income families, charities, and support groups. We also work with a lot of seniors, who have worked hard all their lives, but weren’t in a position to save throughout their working lives. There are about one in three seniors in poverty.

3. Hong Kong is no different than other countries

The amount of food that we throw away every day is actually really similar to what we see in other countries — food makes up about one-third of what’s going to landfill. The difference when you’re looking at developing countries versus the developed countries, you see that in developing countries the food is wasted at the beginning of the supply change, and a lot of lost food occurs getting it from where it’s grown to where people live, due to supply chain and infrastructure.

In developed countries, the food waste happens at the end of the supply chain, at consumer and at manufacturer levels. So what we see here in Hong Kong is that the majority of the food waste is happening at the household level. It’s’ the way that we shop, the way we eat. We are all guilty of this. The bakery shelf life in Hong Kong is 12 hours. Anything left at closing time, the bakery won’t hold on for distribution the next today.

It’s a mix of consumer habits and preferences as well as manufacturers responding to that. The repercussions then mean that waste is going to happen along the supply chain. The retailers are pulling stock from the shelves when something’s still good to eat but the opportunity to sell it has closed.

There are also marketing things that happen – maybe new logos, labels or new packaging, and the business doesn’t want the old packaging to be on the self. They want the new one out. They will draw a line in that stock and the food in the warehouse will never be seen in the store. So the warehouse manager or distributor will make a decision: throw it away, or donate it. And that’s what we will help to facilitate.

4. Food waste piles up

We encourage people to stop and think about all the companies who are involved in the supply chain before it reaches a consumer. At each point along the chain, the volume is decreasing. So the amount you’re getting per restaurant is small, but if you add them all up, it’s significant. But the collection of food at all these outlets is really challenging logistically.

If you go farther back into the supply chain, then you will get larger donations from a smaller number of outlets. So in terms of the scalability, it’s really more about the supply chain and going back a bit farther.

5. It’s not just the restaurants 

The biggest misconception is that it’s all happening in restaurants and hotels. But in reality there’s much more happening behind the scenes in the supply chain. Another misconception is that if you have food waste, the company must be inefficient. But no matter how well run a company is, there will always be surpluses. Sometimes it’s out of its control, like over-orders or projected sales – there is a margin of error to allow for changes in the markets. So this means there will always be an element of surplus. 

We work with all types of food companies except for cooked food donations – we don’t’ work with restaurants or hotels. There’s a great charity called FoodLink, and we work closely with them, but that’s what they do. They work with the hotels.

And looking to the future?

We want to make it as easy as possible for donating food to become the norm – rather than throwing it away. We want to bring in more policies and regulations to be able to support hat. It’s a bit of a chicken and an egg. The industry can do this independently, but if it’s facilitated by government policies, the changes will happen a lot faster.

We have heard of legislation where it’s illegal for supermarkets in France to throw away food that’s still edible — they have to donate it. So that is one extreme, but also bringing in a waste charge would make companies think twice, because they are paying to throw it in the bin, but they can donate it free of charge.

Another thing is the Good Samaritan Law: this is a piece of legislation in many countries around the world that protects companies that donate food. If a company donates food and to its knowledge, it’s still good to eat, then the company can’t be held liable down the line if anyone were to get sick. That would be huge.