Poor and hungry
Surging global and local food prices means low-income families are hungrier than ever
Hong Kong has never lacked options when it comes to dining. The many restaurants and food choices, available around the clock, have even become a problem to people who are not adept at choosing. But this has never bothered Ms Lee Chan, a single mother of a six-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl, because she simply has no money.
Her fridge, like her bank account, is almost empty, but she has three mouths to feed. She routinely skips breakfast or lunch to save money for food for her two kids, who look somewhat slighter than their peers at school.
Her case is neither extreme nor rare among poor households in Hong Kong. In fact, in Asia's second wealthiest metropolis, one in six children from low-income families frequently go hungry, an Oxfam survey reveals last August.
The report estimates that one third of some 144,400 impoverished households with children aged 15 or under do not acquire adequate food and are uncertain of future food sufficiency. These poverty-stricken children, the survey reports, have to eat leftovers or even expired food every now and then.
Some poor households turn to cheaper alternatives to combat rising food prices. Ms Luk Sung-fei, who lives in a walk-up building in Sham Shui Po, has switched to frozen instead of fresh meat over the years. Fruits are a luxury to her. "You will never die of not eating fruits, but you can't survive without rice," she said.
The Oxfam survey shows that food accounts for more than 40 per cent of the total expenditure for families that earn less than half of the median household income. For a three-person family, that means its total monthly income is less than $10,000. Also, nearly 80 per cent of those families spend a quarter more on food than they did in the previous year.
"The fact is, I'm paying more, but getting less," Ms Chan said. Food was not her top concern until the prices of meat and eggs doubled in recent years, she added. "I don't know why the government subsidies remain the same."
High food prices have even prompted Ms Chan and Ms Luk to buy groceries in Shenzhen. But thanks to rising food prices there and the appreciation of the renminbi, it is no longer a viable alternative. "The prices in Shenzhen are just as high as those in Hong Kong if you convert the Hong Kong dollar to the renminbi," said Ms Luk.
A more expensive renminbi has also affected the import prices of food to Hong Kong, which imports over 17 per cent of its agricultural and food products from China, followed by the United States (16 per cent), according to Census and Statistics Department.
Hong Kong's heavy reliance on imports has made the city's food prices the ninth most vulnerable in the world, according to the Nomura Food Vulnerability Index, compiled by Japanese investment bank Nomura.
To make things worse, a renewed global food crisis is likely to drive local food prices higher in the near future. Prices of corn, wheat, and soybeans have gone up dramatically due to the worst ever droughts last summer in the United States and Russia, two of the largest crop producing countries in the world. Global food prices are reaching a dangerous level, which is as worst as that during the 2008 global food crisis, leading to riots in more than a dozen African and Asian countries, according to reports by the United Nations Food Agency released in early October.
Hong Kong University economics professor Xu Chenggang said the city would be drawn into the vortex of global food inflation, with meat prices going up most dramatically.
A former consultant for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Prof Xu said local meat prices would be driven up by the low supply of soybean and corn, which are main ingredients in pig and cattle feeds, in the United States. "The situation will probably last until the arrival of the next harvest season," he said.
Dr Sandra Tsang Kit-man, the head of the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong, said food insecurity would bring about a vicious cycle of poverty. Workers' health had an impact on their work performance and their employment, she said.
What is more, food insecurity may lead to social unrest if the young working poor could not get enough food, she added.
And it seems that Hong Kong's economic prowess does not help the poor tackle food inflation. According to the Nomura Food Vulnerability Index, Hong Kong, with the highest GDP per capita out of the top 25 most vulnerable economies, is even more likely to be hard-hit by food shock than Libya, Pakistan and Kenya, while Singapore ranks 49th out of 80.
"Singapore is relatively safer since it has some farmlands to grow crops within the city-state," said Dr Tsang. However, there was scarcely any land for agricultural production in Hong Kong, where many farmlands have been turned to property development, she added.
The Singaporean government has launched a concern group to keep a close eye on price spikes of daily necessities. Its central bank is also trying to curb inflation by adjusting the exchange rate of its currency. "Obviously, the SAR government has the ability but no intention to cushion the impacts of surging food prices," Dr Tsang said.
Prof Xu said the government was absolutely capable of bringing an end to current urban food insecurity with its financial strength. "Food subsidy will definitely help, and it will not cost the government too much," he said. The government could dispense food stamps to needy families like what the US government has done for decades, and it would have an immediate effect on the hunger-stricken citizens, he said.
Since 2009, the Social Welfare Department has commissioned five non-governmental organisations to operate five short-term food assistance services. Eligible users will receive food assistance, mainly in the form of dry rations, for a maximum of six weeks.
However, the Oxfam survey reveals that nearly 60 per cent of respondents did not know about food banks and those who have heard of it did not apply for the aid. For those who had received food aids, the majority thought the food offered was neither fresh nor nourishing and the maximum collection period was too short.
Dr Tsang said collecting food directly from food banks could make people feel ashamed. Also, the food provided by food banks can be poor in nutrition or even expired, which could deter potential applicants, she said. Dr Tsang suggests that the government provides more hot meal assistances and take beneficiaries' self-esteem into consideration. "Say, the needy ones could exchange their labour for the subsidised food," she said.
Operated by Baptist Oi Kwan Social Serve Centre, "Hotmeal Canteen" in Sham Shui Po is a programme that provides hot meals for low-income residents in the neighbourhood. Eligible participants like Ms Chan and her two children only need to pay $10 for a meal with rice, soup and a dish every weekday evening.
"My kids can now have meat for dinner every day," Ms Chan smiled.
Ms Connie Fung Chong-shuk, the Marketing Executive at the centre, said the weekly menu was supervised by dieticians and changed daily, enabling beneficiaries to enjoy a healthy, enjoyable diet at a lower price. The fact that they have to pay for the meals helps boost their self-esteem, she said.
An increasing number of people are flocking to the canteen since its inception last September. However, the operation is stymied by food costs, which have increased 20 to 30 per cent over the years, said Mr Raymond Chiu Hon-man, the coordinator of the service.
In face of soaring food prices, single mother Ms Chan does not know what more she can do.
"Perhaps I will turn to more organisations for help," she said. "Anyway, I will do whatever I can to make sure my children don't go hungry."
Reported by Celine Ge
Edited by Alan Wong
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