Repurposing Food Waste For More Sustainable Community

Repurposing Food Waste For More Sustainable Community

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.


Community Well-Being and Wholeness –  The Case of AIRSIDE at the Kai Tak Development Area

Community Well-Being and Wholeness – The Case of AIRSIDE at the Kai Tak Development Area

Urban commons, community empowerment, self-governance for sustainability, use of latent resources, creation of blended value.

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


Wholeness pertains to a way of life in which individuals freely pursue aspirations and goals which they treasure, meaningfully participate in community which they call “home”, and responsibly utilize and manage the natural and built environment which they take ownership of; individual pursuits, in turn, generate and enrich social and physical capital which makes the community stronger and the environment more sustainable. With wholeness in place, individual self-actualization and community prosperity are embedded within and reinforce each other.  “In Time Of” Programme – “Developing a Resilient City” is Nan Fung Group’s vision. It was launched in 2020 as the Group’s social co-creation and community engagement initiative aiming to connect people from all walks of life through social partnerships in sustainability, social design, and culture and arts. Based upon the concept of “wholeness”, AIRSIDE is keen to connect people, space, and nature as a way to attain community well-being and betterment for the Kai Tak Development (KTD) areas and its neighbouring communities. The “In Time of” engagement programme was launched at AIRSIDE with a view to working with members of local communities to attain wholeness and, hence, community well-being.

Centre for Civil Society and Governance (CCSG) at The University of Hong Kong (HKU Lab) is engaged in developing a systematic and evidence-based impact measurement for the Airside Engagement Programme, and designing Collaborative Economy Scheme to help foster the community connection and co-create a unique community brand.


Enhancing Community Well-being for Sustainability

As an ever-growing and evolving global city, Hong Kong has been undergoing rapid growth and development since the post-WWII period. However, rapid growth may be accompanied by uneven development and even urban decay in some parts of the city. There is, therefore, an urgent need to enhance the well-being and improve the livelihood of those staying in the older and more run-down neighbourhoods. This is the case of the KTD, a prime area in Hong Kong and was once Hong Kong’s gateway to the rest of the world. It sits on a five-kilometre coastal access approaching Victoria Harbour with a cluster of long-established local neighbourhoods in its hinterland.

The KTD is typical of a mixed neighbourhood where new developments were built in an old district. KTD was home to the old Kai Tak Airport; it includes Kowloon City, Ma Tau Wai, and San Po Kong. Much of the KTD area was developed in the 1950s to 1970s, giving these neighbourhoods distinctive post-war characteristics. The area consisted basically of factory buildings, public housing, and private housing for lower-middle-class families. New buildings began to replace older ones after the airport was relocated in 1998, with the KTD being the most recent development in the area. There are tremendous changes in the physical surroundings, demographic composition, and business types with the emergence of these new developments. Franchises and chain stores have gradually replaced mom-and pop shops (e.g., hardware, stationery, grocery, and toy), which featured prominently in the KTD. Residents of these new communities may often be seen as having a more prestigious lifestyle than their counterparts. Little by little, the area is witnessing the formation of two communities, separated by the spending divide; each has little to do with the other. However, communal facilities are still shared, and future developments need to cater to both. There is, therefore, a need to bridge the two communities, making KTD home to both.


The Concept of Urban Commons

This Project is a collaborative effort between CCSG, a major real-estate developer in Hong Kong, and several nonprofits in social services and the environment to co-develop a framework and networked strategy for making social change. A local district characterized by a combination of mature residential neighbourhoods and redeveloped high-end shopping mall and office buildings has been chosen as the site for experimenting a community currency scheme and various community-building programmes.

As wholeness is built on rich social bonds among members of community and harmonious interactions between people and nature; connecting the members—local residents, businesses, associations and relevant stakeholders—and building among them reciprocity and trust and an appreciation of environmental stewardship is key to attaining wholeness. To explore what local community members treasure and aspire to attain, a community-wide survey and a series of engagement workshops were conducted to gauge members’ views.  Based on information collected, three components constitutive of the desired Community Brand were identified:


Cultural Heritage: To conserve the rich history and cultural heritage and to make it part of the Community Brand, members of the community aspire to enmesh it in community life, to leverage it for inspiring new art and cultural activities, and to utilize it for generating blended value beneficial to the community.


Inclusive Community: Building rapport between the new and old communities with a view to leveraging the complementarities for mutual betterment is both a challenge and an opportunity.

Members of the community aspire to make inclusiveness and care a defining feature of the Community Brand.  They are keen on building a caring and inclusive community in which members of different backgrounds—the middle-class and the grassroots, the old and the young, the newcomers and the long-time residents—relate to one another with respect and care; and are able to work together to cope with collective challenges.


Open Spaces: Open spaces are not only venues in which people connect and interact with one another in their daily lives, they are also essential resources with which community members co-create possibilities and pursue their aspirations in collaboration with each other. Members of the community aspire to augment and fully utilize open spaces for improving the community’s liveability; and to brand their community as one characterized by openness, connection, and social vibrancy.


Our Research

Urban resilience and sustainability have long been topics of interest among researchers in search for ways for cities to enhance its resilience towards risks and crises and to achieve the well-being for their inhabitants. The concept of social capital argues that community resilience and reciprocity could only be nurtured when the interests of the community stakeholders are nested (Falk & Kilpatrick, 2000). These interests could be expressed in the forms of trust, outlook in life, sense of belonging, etc. (Putnam, 1993). While it is commonly accepted that social capital are the building blocks of community resilience, the question of how to model collaborative interactions among community members from different walks of life remains unresolved.

“Urban commons” are about making collective decisions on the allocation of resources by members of the community (Fournier, 2013). There are creative ways of “communing” that achieve different level of effective collaboration and interaction. Through the proposed community engagement events and/or activities to be designed for “Airside” at Kai Tak Development site, it is hoped that the communal and collective elements could enhance the community’s sense of relationship with not only other community members and the place itself, but also come to respect the shared resources and values that binds the community together. This shared resources and values among the community members is then expected to inspire a series of nested community-based commons, which is a new mode of resource management that “places an emphasis not on monetary value but on a wealth of knowledge, information, affects and social relationships” (Casarino, 2008); these “new social and economic values and have an important role in ‘recommoning’ the assets necessary for a community to sustain collective activities in the [community] and beyond” (Brown et al, 2012). Some initial research questions are:

  • What are the definitions and institutional design of commons that can contribute to the goal of achieving sustainability and local-global wholeness for the Kai Tak community and its surrounding neighborhoods?
  • What are the determining factors and ways for incubating community-based commons?