Daisy Tam is Associate Professor, Department of Humanities & Creative Writing Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) & Fulbright Research Scholar at MIT.
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Dr. Daisy Tam is an Associate Professor at the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing at the Hong Kong Baptist University where she teaches and researches urban food systems and practices with a particular focus on food security. Dr. Daisy received her Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from Goldsmiths, University of London, and holds an MA in Comparative Literature from University College London. She grew up in Hong Kong and graduated with a BA in Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong. Her awareness of the food waste issue dates back to 2004, when she was in London. She spearheads research in this area in Hong Kong and works in an interdisciplinary and innovative manner by bringing together the arts and sciences. In 2018, she won the Fulbright-RGC Senior Scholar Award to conduct research at MIT’s Urban Risk Lab. Her project, “Crowdsourcing Food Rescue – a new approach to Food Security and Urban Resilience” is a technological and theoretical undertaking that investigates the capacity of networked approaches to collecting surplus food in the city. The project advances research in the area of food security and waste reduction, increases resilience for the socially vulnerable, and contributes to sustainable urban development in the face of climate change. In one of her talk, she gave some scary statistics on Hong Kong’s broken food system: the city throws away 3,600 tonnes of food every day. To educate her students and the rest of the world through lectures and workshops on being less wasteful, she suggests a shift in the attitude toward food consumption. Apart from food-related research, she is also involved in improving the lives of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong. She is the Board Director of Enrich – an organization that empowers women through financial literacy training.
You are an Associate Professor at the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing at the Hong Kong Baptist University. When did you first realize you wanted to focus on urban food systems and food security? What initially drew you to become engaged in these themes?
(Almost) From Day 1! My Ph.D. was on ethical food practices and I knew from that point on that food would be the focus of my work – it’s such a grounded topic – it touches everyone and offers many dimensions to explore. When I was studying in London I had a part-time job selling apples for a local farmer in Borough Market. It was one of the best times in my life – i learnt everything about food from the farmers, the butchers, the fishmongers and the bakers, etc, and I have so much respect for the work that they do. When I returned to Hong Kong, I expanded my research to the level of the city – and started working on urban food system and food security.
Dr. Daisy Tam is the founder of Breadline and Hong Kong Foodworks. Hong Kong FoodWorks is dedicated to the discussion of the Hong Kong Food System. Food system is the way that food is produced, distributed, consumed and the waste disposed of in Hong Kong. Hong Kong FoodWorks provides open-source resources for researchers and practitioners in food of all levels. Hong Kong FoodWorks aim to make accessible to all who are interested in and wish to learn more about issues concerning food in Hong Kong. Against a background of growing global population, rapid urbanization, and reduced productivity due to climate events, rethinking the way people feed themselves is not only a question of sustainability but of security. The world food system produces both hunger and excess, a logic so contradictory. Everyone has the Right to be Free from Hunger. Food was first mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Overpopulation and natural resources can no longer sustain this current way of life. Today consumerist lifestyles are extremely energy-intensive – from the way people eat to the way people dress to the way people travel. Diversifying and finding alternative models that support smaller, more local supply chains can help tackle these systemic issues. Dr. Daisy Tam decided to tackle Hong Kong’s alarming food waste by designing her crowd-sourcing app Breadline, which allows bakeries to connect with volunteers wanting to pick up leftover loaves and deliver them to charities. Supported by the Fulbright Scholarship, the project started in 2018, and has already connected 80 volunteers with 300 bakeries in its Beta Version only, facilitating the donation of 1000 loaves of bread each week.
How did Hong Kong FoodWorks come to life? Can you tell us more about it and what this means for social and environmental impact in the city? What were some of the biggest challenges at the beginning of HKFoodWorks?
10 years ago when I started to talk about food security in Hong Kong, many people thought it was unnecessary – after all HK is Asia’s gourmet city! We have one of the highest restaurants to population ratios in the world, and thinking about securing our food system seems redundant. Living in a prosperous city has its advantages, but it can also make us blind. Around the same time, a few social issues emerged: food waste was very much on the agenda, as our landfills were reaching saturation. The city also drew up its first poverty line, revealing the harsh realities of the vulnerable population. Further afield, severe climate events were raising alarm bells about the effects of climate change – and food production was a large culprit. I see all of these as part of the same problem, so I put together HKFoodWorks – as a way to raise awareness and share my research with a wider public.
What about Breadline? Can you tell us more about it?
Breadline is HK’s first public web application for food rescue. I worked very closely with food rescue organisations over the years and I understand the challenges that they face. Collecting surplus food is a logistical nightmare and I thought it was an interesting problem to tackle. I finally had the opportunity to develop the platform with my long-term project partner when I won the Fulbright Senior Scholar Award in 2018 – I spent 6 months at MIT and had the time and the environment to bring it to fruition.
How have HKFoodWorks and Breadline grown since they started? What are the milestones you have achieved so far?
Breadline grew from a research idea into an actual application where over 1000 people make use of it to collect nearly 100K loaves of bread. The platform has been running for almost 2 years now – serving the most vulnerable population throughout the pandemic. The design of the platform empowers our volunteers to act independently, operating on real-time information, so we are 4 times more volunteer efficient and effective. Our hit rate is at 98% – if a shop reports having leftovers, our volunteers will be there!
Are people’s food habits, in Hong Kong, over the last years changed? Do you think they bear more conscious about food waste? What role do you think social media plays in this cause today?
Absolutely! I think it’s so much more acceptable nowadays to pack away leftover food, we have changed the cultural values/ meanings/ behaviour – leaving a table full of excess no longer signifies good hospitality!
In the last few years of Covid19, there has been a need to talk about the importance to act for climate change, shaping future healthier food, and creating sustainable cities. Do you think there still are misconceptions about these priorities?
If it were up to me, I would redesign the city and the way we live with food at the centre of the question. Too often we treat problems separately when they are interrelated. What would the future of a city look like, if we integrate growing spaces in every district?
“We’ve always associated hunger with developing countries. Now we’re talking about food security in very rich cosmopolitan cities.” – Dr. Daisy Tam
You are also involved with the migrant domestic worker community in Hong Kong. How and when did you start to work on this project? Can you tell us more?
Women empowerment has always been important to me. I began volunteering at a local charity called Enrich, then became their advisor, then board, and eventually chair of the organisation. I very much appreciated their attitude towards migrant domestic workers – the way they seek to empower women through education and financial literacy training – and values these workers as a contributing force to Hong Kong. I met so many women who had such inspiring stories – the way they fought for a better life for themselves and their families, their strength, and resilience are so motivating.
What advice would you give to women? What advice do you think was important to you, and could make a difference for others too?
Never settle without a fight. Ask yourself if your efforts, skillset, and all that you are bringing to the table are genuinely recognised, not just in words but in action.
The opportunities that we have today have been made possible by those who fought before us, so we have to keep up the good fight and forge a better path for those who will come after. The theme for International Women’s Day, 8 March 2022 (IWD 2022) is, “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”. What are your hopes for women, what are your wishes?
My hope is that the fight for equality is everyone’s fight – together we can accomplish so much more if we are all given the opportunity to learn, grow, and participate fully in society. We have what it takes to create a more diverse and inclusive society – and putting a cap on this potential because of unfounded biases is the squandering of our most precious resource.
Photos courtesy of Daisy Tam