Like many large cities around the world, Hong Kong has an age problem: According to a 2016 report by the city’s Census and Statistics Department, 15.9 percent of the city’s population of 7.4 million are aged 65 or older, compared with 12.4 per cent in 2006. It also has a food waste problem; due to short shelf life and high distribution costs, a large percentage of the produce grown by local farms ends up in the trash. Now, a local entrepreneur is working to solve both problems with one business, hiring senior citizens to help package a line of frozen dinners made from organic produce grown on farms located inside the city.
Since 2013, Kenneth Choi Man-Kin has run restaurants and a food packaging line funded by Everbright Concern Action, a Hong Kong charity that promotes social justice and provides rehabilitation and online services to the poor and elderly. For a salary ranging from HK$36 to HK$50 (about $4.60 to $6.40 USD) per hour, the group employs local senior citizens to help package frozen meals made from local organic produce. As reported by the South China Morning Post, Choi’s project has won an HK$800,000 (about $100,000 USD) prize awarded by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, enabling him to hire four to six more grandpas and grannies and providing the seniors with a social outlet and a way to earn a modest living post-retirement.
As in many communities, the elderly in Hong Kong can face loneliness and isolation, Choi told the Chinese newspaper. Having a job to report to—in this case, helping out at Everbright Concern Action’s restaurants and food packaging line—can help the seniors ward off anxiety and depression by staying connected.
“I’ve seen senior citizens who were really shy during the interview, but once they get into our restaurants, they are more confident and have a new circle of friends which is extremely difficult to find as you enter your later stage in life,” he said.
Farmland in densely packed Hong Kong is hard to come by, and the city has historically imported more than 90 percent of its food from mainland China. But over the past several years, as concern over contamination over the Chinese food supply has grown, demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables has risen, too. In response, a network of urban and rooftop farms have been established, including one organic supplier that furnishes Everbright Action Concern’s restaurants. When Choi noticed that about one third of the farm’s yield going to waste, he decided to add frozen meals to the project’s scope, which can help extend the shelf life of this valuable produce by a few months.
“Each restaurant probably only needs 10 kilograms of a certain vegetable a week, but in the farm, you can’t tell the soil to give you 10 kilograms today and put it on hold for another week,” he told the newspaper.
Working with the frozen meals is also an easier task for the old folks, for whom Choi said front of the house work at the charity group’s restaurants could be a bit too fast-paced.
With the prize money, awarded by the university’s NGO Leadership Program, Choi plans to buy some new freezers and blast chillers, as well as hire an additional handful of elderly workers—providing some spending money, and opportunities for friendship, for the city’s elders.