Adopting a gendered lens to understand lived experiences of food procurement: a case study in Hong Kong

Low-income families in Sham Shui Po district, Hong Kong’s poorest district, chronically struggle to afford sufficient nutritious food in the area due to the high food prices, which had been intensified by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Using the district as a case study, I sought to investigate the nutrition-related challenges facing low-income families, specifically mothers with young children (who have solely responsible for food procurement stemming from practicality and cultural reasons) by understanding how they navigate the local food landscape by using a variety of socio-spatial strategies. The outcomes demonstrate the importance of gender roles in food provisioning at the household level in on-going efforts to reduce malnutrition and food insecurity. 

In-depth interviews conducted with 21 mothers revealed that they faced a range of challenges, both financial and physical, to access and prepare nutritious foods for them and their families in the district. In terms of food access, the mothers tended to buy food from local supermarkets and markets. Whilst the mothers cared strongly about ensuring their children had a sufficiently nutritious diet, most felt that this was out of reach due to the high cost of food items like milk powder for their infants. Additionally, some mothers also weren’t sure of what is deemed ‘healthy’ for their children to eat, resulting in them buying cheaper and more processed foods such as instant noodles as part of their weekly shopping trips.

To ensure sufficient food quantities could be provided for their families, the mothers also occasionally visited food banks offered by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).  However, some mothers faced challenges accessing food assistance from local NGOs. The rigid screening process to register with local food banks meant that low-income households where a family member is employed as a casual worker cannot register due to failure to produce evidence of pay cheques. Food banks also had strict requirements for the duration of service usage. Some mothers also said that hot meal service collection points were too far for them to visit whilst carrying their young children and failed to provide enough food for the household. Others shared how food banks tended to give a lot of canned and preserved food, which they thought too unhealthy for their children. As a result, the mothers often ate the canned and preserved food items themselves or ate less to ensure their children could eat more of the nutritious-dense and higher quality food items. This is important because it shows that interventions aiming to increase access to nutrition in low-income households need to consider that diets differ between members of a household and understand the reasons for this, with subsequent impacts on nutritional intake. 

It is evident that these women, who are the primary providers of their families’ food, must navigate food access within the urban area they live in with key considerations of price, time constraints, distance, and childcare responsibilities, whilst facing additional challenges in accessing charitable food support because of their low-income status. Actions to ensure access to food banks and hot meal services can be made more inclusive by easing registration processes and tailoring them to individual circumstances. Food banks also need to be more attentive to feedback from beneficiaries of these services about what they truly need. One way to do this is to leverage ‘WeChat’, the Chinese messaging app the mothers already regularly use, to disseminate information about distribution points and gather feedback. WeChat could also be effective for delivering nutrition education to the mothers and forming new networks between the mothers to exchange information about food access in the district. 

Ultimately, factoring in gender-specific experiences from the food procurement, preparation, and final consumption phase at the local scale is imperative to ensure contemporary food systems can support accessible, nutritious, and inclusive diets. This case study demonstrates food provisioning as a ‘social and cultural practice’ (Alkon et al, 2017), where the women exhibited resourcefulness and adaptive abilities to procure and prepare food for their families. In the case of Hong Kong, alleviating malnutrition must start by ensuring women, who tend to bear the responsibility for food provisioning at the household level, must be equipped with knowledge and the social capital to navigate their local food environments to procure healthy and affordable food. Notably, food banks that serve as a ‘safety net’ are not sufficient to build the resilience for low-income families to overcome food insecurity in cities. Interventions need to understand the context-specific manifestations of, and coping mechanisms against urban food insecurity factoring in gender roles and dynamics at the household level. 

Belinda Ng