Eating with dignity: Food House initiative offers discounted meal boxes for unemployed due to COVID-19

Photo via 5B Private Corner
Photo via 5B Private Corner

Business has never been tougher for 5B Private Corner, a Western-style cafe in Tsuen Wan. When the coronavirus first emerged in Hong Kong in January, a population scarred by the deadly 2003 SARS outbreak diligently heeded calls to stay home and practiced social distancing.

March was the worst month. A slew of imported cases triggered fears that the city could be hit by a second wave of the virus just as it seemed to beat back the first. Companies implemented work-from-home policies, and 5B Private Corner—reliant largely on the patronage of lunchtime office crews in the area—saw revenue drop as much as 90%, owner Kelvin Law says.

Thankfully, business is slowly picking back up. Encouraged by the fact that local transmission has dwindled significantly, people are letting down their guard and eating out again. The kitchen is the busiest it’s been in months—but it’s also in no small part due to a new social project, Food House.

‘People are losing their jobs everyday’

While the virus has appeared to ease, the economic consequences of the outbreak is likely to have a lasting effect on the city. Unemployment rose to a nine-year high of 5.2% for the period of February to April, a sharp rise from 1% in the same interval last year. The tourism and food and beverage sectors have been the hardest hit, with joblessness increasing to 9% and 12% respectively.

Glaring statistics like this prompted environmental initiative One Bite Social and environmental NGO JupYeah to brainstorm ways they could help the community. From there, Food House was born.

“More and more people are losing their jobs everyday,” says Suki Luk, Senior Project Manager at One Bite Social. “When you suddenly lose your job, one of the biggest worries is [affording] your two meals of the day.”

Partnering with restaurants like 5B Private Corner, Food House provides lunch and dinner meals for just HK$15 (US$2) for people who have been financially impacted by the epidemic. Meals, which are ordered online, are brought from the restaurants to a pick-up point where they can be collected.

Those who wish to support the project can also buy the meals at the full price of HK$75 (US$10).

The menu changes every day, with two options each for lunch and dinner. On offer this week was curry pork chop rice, pumpkin and mushroom risotto, and sweet soy sauce chicken wings with rice, among others.

Photo via 5B Private Corner
Photo via 5B Private Corner

Currently, Food House only operates in Tsuen Wan. But Luk says she hopes to liaise with restaurants in other districts, including Chai Wan, Sai Wan, and Kwun Tong so they can expand their work there. These areas have a relatively high proportion of low-income residents, but are underserved by NGOs, she explains.

“When we think of poverty in Hong Kong, we think of Sham Shui Po. But these districts have high poverty rates too, and they really need support,” she added.

People who have bought Food House’s meals include private tutors who have lost their jobs because of the closure of tutorial centers during the outbreak, and taxi drivers whose incomes have plummeted due to people spending more time at home, according to Luk.

Protests and COVID-19: a double whammy

Hong Kong was already reeling from the impacts of months of anti-government protests last summer when the COVID-19 outbreak began. The sometimes violent demonstrations took a heavy toll on domestic consumption and tourism, forcing the city into a recession towards the end of last year—the first time since 2009.

Protesters block roads in Sham Shui Po as surrounding shops are shuttered on Oct. 1, 2019. (Photo via Coconuts Media)
Protesters block roads in Sham Shui Po as surrounding shops are shuttered on Oct. 1, 2019. Photo: Coconuts Media

In February, the government announced its first round of relief measures worth HK$30 billion (US$3.86 billion), including one-off cash injections for businesses including travel agents, restaurants, and bars. But many said the payments were insufficient given the months of slashed revenue that businesses have already endured.

An employment support scheme was also criticized as allowing employers to fire workers after receiving cash payments meant to subsidize the cost of their wages. And while the government’s announcement in March that it would be disbursing a HK$10,000 (US$1,290) handout to all permanent residents was well received, applications for the cash haven’t even begun.

“There’s a severe sense of helplessness among us. But we thought if all of us put in a little bit of effort, we can really do something,” Luk says.

Eating with dignity

Since May, Food House has already raised more than HK$130,000 (US$16,780), enough to cover about two months of its expenses.

Karis Liu, an event planner at JupYeah, says the greater difficulty has been in locating spaces that can serve as meal collection points. Part of JupYeah’s mission as an NGO is to advocate a more efficient use of community spaces, and the original plan was to find vacant shop units that aren’t currently being rented out.

The Food House team (Photo via Food House)
The Food House team during a brainstorming session. Photo courtesy of Food House

At the moment, a bookstore in a Tsuen Wan shopping mall acts as a pick-up point for meals. The owner of the shop learned about Food House through personal connections with the One Bite Social and JupYeah teams, and agreed to loan out the entrance of the store when he heard they were not able to find any other space.

“We hope to find vacant shops to use in other districts,” Liu says.

The reason why Food House is not just distributing meals for free, Liu adds, is that she hopes people on the receiving end can “eat with dignity.” The target audience of the project are those who are newly unemployed or have otherwise suffered a loss in income due to the coronavirus.

“We want to let them know that society can support them during this difficult time,” Liu says.

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