Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Local Buzz: AmCham's "Moving Hong Kong's Growing Mountains of Food Waste" Seminar

Last week, we were lucky enough to attend the American Chamber of Commerce's seminar on food waste, titled "Moving Hong Kong's Growing Mountains of Food Waste".  Speakers Anne Gillman (associate at Hamilton Advisors), Gabrielle Kirstein (Executive Director of Feeding Hong Kong), and Bobsy Gaia (sustainable lifestyle advocate and owner of Mana! Fast Slow Food and Life Cafe) each commented on the state of Hong Kong's food waste problem, and the actions being taken, on a variety of fronts, to address this very serious issue.

Gillman first set out the situation at hand: Hong Kong is a culture of frequent dining out, and one in which displays of generosity at the table are common. But these (and other) cultural norms result in 3,200 tons of waste food each day. Our level of food waste (per person) is now 38% higher than that of Taiwan and 56% higher than that of Korea; and one-third of Hong Kong's Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) is currently disposed of in 3 landfills, which are estimated to be full before 2020. Thus, it's clear that we need to develop better ways to recycle, reduce, and reuse both edibles and non-edibles.

Gillman suggested the need for an "Eat Responsibly" public relations campaign, one through which the public would internalize the financial, environmental, health, and societal benefits of minimizing food waste. This campaign would utilize strategic partnerships with restaurants, media, community groups, and residential building management teams, to create convenient, smart, and "hip" ways to to reduce food waste. She suggested several possible courses of action for the campaign, and asserted that we should collectively challenge ourselves to reduce food waste by 5% in 6 months and 9% in 9 months.

Kirstein provided additional details on the impact of food waste in Hong Kong, and highlighted the need to redistribute edible food that is thrown away to those who experience food insecurity locally. She noted that in Hong Kong 1 in 5 people live below the poverty line; 1 in 4 children do not receive 3 meals a day; 1 in 3 seniors live in poverty; and 100,000 people live in cage homes, cubicles, or on rooftops. Meanwhile, supermarkets dispose of 29 tons of edible food per day. Food is wasted at every juncture of food production and sale; and at the level of the retailer, there are several reasons for this: limited storage space, short shelf life, damaged packaging, approach of sell-by dates, out-dated packaging, labeling error, discontinuation of a product, and minor recipe variation. (Note: She remarked that consumers can be hesitant to buy and eat food past its "best before" date, but that this label is only a recommendation from the manufacturer about when to consume the food for peak flavor, texture, etc. This date is not the same as the food expiry date, though its often taken as such)

Kirstein then discussed the creation of food banks and food rescue organizations as a means to dealing productively with food waste in Hong Kong. Food banks, as defined by Feeding Hong Kong are organizations that collect, sort, store, and distribute donated food to nonprofits within the community (those nonprofits then distribute the food to individuals in need).  Feeding Hong Kong is considered a food bank, and works in tandem with other organizations (such as Foodlink and Food Angel) that engage in food rescue: they gather excess perishable and prepared food and redistribute that food to charities or individuals.

Unfortunately, there are some obstacles in the path of the good work these organizations are doing. There are no Good Samaritan laws (protect food donors from liability) in Hong Kong, which worsens potential donors' worries about health, safety, and brand reputation. In addition, there are no financial incentives for donors, since food donations are not tax deductible. Despite those barriers, Feeding Hong Kong has developed an impressive network of donors; has begun a "Chefs in the Community" program (through which cooks at local hunger relief organizations are trained and mentored by professional chefs); and is looking to find partners to supply rooftops for farms/community gardens, which would produce fresh produce for Hong Kong's food insecure.

Bobsy Gaia was the last speaker of the day, and eloquently articulated his view that food waste (along with pollution, reckless destruction of resources, and oppressive institutions--in Hong Kong and everywhere) is a symptom of an unhealthy, unbalanced worldview, held by a majority of the population: that the world is merely a a source of material, instead of a conscious, living presence.

Bobsy is an eco-entrepreneur, who has focused his life and career on food, and the impact food has on the planet and its future. His ethos of resource conservation is present throughout the design and operation of the vegetarian and organic restaurants he has created (e.g. he provides free water, incorporates upcycled materials into the restaurants' designs, uses biodegradable packaging and energy-saving lighting, and supplies used cooking oil to companies that recycle it into soap). He spoke of the difficulties he has run into, over the years, trying to compost his food waste, and decried the absence of infrastructure for conscientious waste disposal (and general dearth of governmental support for green businesses). He ended by noting that thoughtful eaters can make a substantial impact on the environment by reducing their own consumption of meat, fish, and dairy.

We came away from the seminar inspired and invigorated, knowing that, though the problem at hand is imposing, there is a growing community (in which we humbly include ourselves) of individuals and organizations ready and willing to create and implement solutions. Thank you to all of the speakers, for being part of inspiring change, and to the American Chamber of Commerce for hosting and including us in this important discussion.

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