Repurposing Food Waste For More Sustainable Community

No hunger, from waste to wellness, transformational impact, community connection, resource sharing


By Joyce Chow, The Centre for Civil Society and Governance, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong


Hong Kong is one of the richest cities in the world. In 2020, 23.6% of the city’s population (i.e. 1.65 million people) were poor, with poverty rate on the rise. Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient stood at 0.54, which was at a 45 year high, indicating serious income inequality. According to the Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report 2020, nearly 45% of the total elderly population (about 583,600 individuals) were identified as poor; their poverty rate was more than double that of the overall population, largely because they were no longer able to earn an income. In addition, single-parent families and new arrival households are particularly vulnerable.


Poverty is not just a problem of inadequate income; it is a multidimensional social phenomenon associated with vulnerability, risk and social exclusion. Food is often the item people choose to cut back on to pay for other expenses such as rent, medical expenses and children’s educational needs. Lack of food and poor nutrition weakens a person’s health; food insecurity often causes stress among individuals.


Managing Food Waste: A Shared Repsonsbility?

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), 1.3 billion tonnes of food were wasted globally every year. In fact, food waste contributed to 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and was a considerable driver of global climate change since energy and resources were needed to rear, grow, process, package, transport, store, cook and dispose of food.


Over 5.6 million tonnes of municipal solid waste were disposed of at the landfills of Hong Kong in 2021. Food waste made up the largest share, accounting for 30% of the total – around 1.25 million tonnes. This meant about 3,437 tonnes of food was thrown away and ended up in landfill every day. Despite this enormous waste of food, many of the city’s poor and disadvantaged citizens, ironically, cannot afford healthy and nutritious meals.


Food assistance and food rescue initiatives in Hong Kong emerged in the early 2000s. Some organisations purchased food and distributed it to those in need. Others rescued food from different sources and repurposed it. Some organisations also provided food vouchers for recipients to use at markets and restaurants. There were, however, daunting challenges involved in these operations of rescuing food and providing food assistance.


To ensure a high-quality food rescue and food assistance programme, it is necessary to 1) have a management structure that is flexible and versatile enough to cope with unexpected circumstances and capture emerging opportunities; 2) have a combination of expertise that allows for effective programme management; and 3) have the right logistical set up to ensure not only food safety but also service design that can meet the actual needs of the service users. Building upon these management and operational imperatives, to scale up the programme, the team needs to 4) gain and maintain trust with food and financial donors to sustain and grow their operations; 5) maintain close collaboration with charity partners to extend its reach and be in touch with community needs; 6) internalize its vision and values to become part of the ethos of the organization, and 7) communicate its vision, work, and achievements to various stakeholders to garner more support and grow the movement.


Found in 2011, Food Angel is neither the first nor the only organisation that collects edible food surplus and distributes it to those in need. However, they are one of the few organisations that is engaged in the entire process, from rescuing food, to storing it, preparing and cooking the meals and delivering it to those in need. Food Angel fulfils the management and operational imperatives required for a high-quality food rescue and assistance programme through different strategies.


Wellness of the Community Comes First  

Food Angel is committed to two objectives – rescuing food to feed those in need, and raising awareness on food waste, poverty, and hunger. Their focus on elderly in poverty resonates with many as the Chinese culture places great importance on respecting and caring for the elderly. This clear focus on the theme of food anchors the work of Food Angel and guides their programme design and development. To enable themselves to further reduce food waste and provide more meals, Food Angel continued to diversify and expand their operation to cover more varieties of food. For example, they acquired trucks and storage spaces equipped with refrigeration facilities to receive frozen food donations; established their own kitchen to handle and prepare a wide variety of foods; operated a sizable logistics team, enabling them to collect excessive cooked meals from suppliers and deliver them in time to charity partners for distribution.


Leveraging Collaboration for Growth and Success

Since its establishment, Food Angel had grown from the four-member team to having around 100 full-time staff and a further 150 part-time staff. Despite this growth, their management structure has remained relatively flat and has managed to remain agile and flexibly when responding to rapidly evolving context and needs.


Food Angel’s prime concern was the effectiveness of their interventions in meeting the needs of their service users. They did have certain guidelines, such as service users’ selection criteria, but they did not put in place rigid rules of who can receive help from them, or cumbersome policies which would limit the scope of their work or slow down decision making. In fact, teams did not have individual key performance indicators or service targets to chase after, and this seemed to have fostered collaboration across teams rather than to fight for resources across teams. Their structure allowed them to respond quickly to requests, opportunities and changing contexts.


Not only did Food Angel try to meet the needs of the service users, they also tried their best to meet the needs of their stakeholders. A donor and a charity partner shared that Food Angel treated them as partners. They responded in a timely manner, considered the partners’ needs, and their attitude was always to find solutions together.


Building Community Partnership Network for Shared Goals 

Food Angel knew what they need to further scale up and they had access to resources to make it happen. With a good grasp of what the on-the-ground needs and the latest food technology trends were, the Food Angel team knew what initiatives they wanted to embark on next and need funding for. They were then able to convince donors to support their cause because they were articulate about their vision and mission, had a solid operation, a stellar reputation and a clear and convincing plan forward.


In addition to securing resources required to scale up, Food Angel had also been successful in building partnerships with over 200 charity partners. These charity partners were crucial in helping Food Angel reach more people in need and obtain first-hand information about what the users’ needs were in different areas. It has also helped Food Angel to extend its coverage beyond Sham Shui Po area, reaching 18 districts.


Food Angel also embraced the concept of shared resources and collaborated with four schools to launch the Community Canteen programme. Not only does the programme make good use of the auditoriums or playgrounds by turning them into community canteen to serve free meals to an additional 490 individuals in need, students and parents of the schools help distribute the meals, which is a great opportunity to foster cross-generational interactions and for them to better understand the social issues involved.


In terms of daily operation, Food Angel requires 200 volunteers per day. In year 2019-2020, 63,668 service hours were generated by the volunteers. The volunteers themselves also became ambassadors of the organisation, further widening the support network.


Food Angel is now contributing to the food rescue and food assistance ecosystem by being a Strategic Partner of Food-Co, which is a platform that matches food donors, charities, volunteers and food recipients to direct surplus food to those in need. In doing so, Food Angel is maximizing its impact by facilitating the movement to continue to grow.


Creating an Up-close Experience for Transformational Impact

Food Angel conducted comprehensive evaluation of their services every two years. On top of gathering necessary data to understand their performance, Food Angel also uses this opportunity to strengthen their bond with their service users. All Food Angel staff including the chefs are responsible for conducting user satisfaction surveys. This process allows all staff to be in touch with the very reasons the organisation exists, which serves to strengthen the staff’s buy-in. The service users also feel respected and treasured through these interactions.


Food Angel volunteers could learn, experience, act, and see the impact of their contribution. Food Angel is located in Sham Shui Po, a visibly poorer neighbourhood. This helped to demonstrate the context and needs of the service users. As the elderly were being served, the volunteers could see the elderly appreciate the meals and their efforts. Food Angel was able to create a strong sense of community and belonging through their thoughtful interactions with the elderly and this feeling is infectious. The intangible value of “with love” was made tangible at Food Angel and it made volunteers want to return to help again.


Food Angel places great emphasis on education as they believe “it is the most effective way to reduce food waste at source and build a caring community”. They promote the value of cherishing food and caring for the disadvantaged by engaging with schools, companies and the general public. Their educational programmes at Foodstep Journey, Hong Kong’s first experience centre on the topic launched in 2017 were designed to be highly interactive and fun so that the participants would take these issues to heart. They also organised a lot of promotional events which engage the public and generate media attention to widen their impact.


Improved Wellness, More Smiles

In addition to having access to nutritious meals, service users of Food Angel generally also experience improved wellbeing as they save on time and money, and improve on emotional wellbeing, health, and social connections. An elderly informed us by having access to meals at Food Angel, he could spend his spare time doing exercises at the park. Food Angel estimated that elderly spends HKD1,900 on food per month. By receiving meals from Food Angel, this cost can be spared to meet other needs.


Another elderly said she and her neighbours did not use to greet each other, but because they all took food at Food Angel’s community centre, they started greeting each other, and she appreciated that. Moreover, the volunteers and staff use the meal distribution as an opportunity to check on how the service users are doing and whether follow up is required. This is particularly valuable when there are hidden cases of elderly in need of additional support.


Their volunteer programme is highly successful. The enthusiasm of staff and volunteers and their attentive care for the elderly successfully created a sense of belonging. This helped build a connection among people and made them want to volunteer repeatedly. For Food Angel, the volunteers are not only vital to its operations. They also act as its ambassadors, sharing their experience and knowledge on the issues of food waste and hunger with their families and friends.


Looking at the figures, Food Angel produced over 20,000 nutritionally balanced meals and over 11,000 food packs per week currently, covering around 30,000 service users. With the introduction of cook-chill technology, these numbers are set to rise, covering a greater number of people in the future.


Food Angel managed to bring different stakeholders including donors (food and financial), volunteers, service users, charity partners, students, corporates together to work towards a common goal. It is a demonstration of effective partnerships. They also created momentum around reducing food waste. This increased the readiness of stakeholders from food related industries to consider donating food.