Changing the world one bite at a time

Reading Time: 5 minutes“What’s for dinner?” might just be the most-asked domestic question of all time. Cave mums were probably asked, and I bet the parents who colonise Mars will also be asked that question. Every, single, day. Food is life and that means feeding our family is at the core of nurturing. But feeding our family is getting more complex. We want to fuel our bodies with produce that is fresh and free of chemicals, but in Hong Kong that can come at great cost to the environment. Our fresh, organic food is often packaged and flown in on planes collecting a significant carbon footprint before it hits our dinner table.

This means the all-important daily question has evolved. Now it’s, “What’s for dinner, where did it come from and at what expense?” So, what’s driving this food evolution and why do parents care so much? In a nutshell, as parents we want our children to be healthy and we hope for a bright and happy future for them. Food is central to both of these concerns. What we eat has a direct impact on our health and the health of our planet. The integrity of food dictates our health, and the way that food is processed, packaged and disposed of will determine the future of our planet. Suddenly, this week’s meal plan just got very real.

But this is a positive story about people in our city who are helping families make better decisions about the food they buy and eat. There are great and growing options for Hongkongers to eat food with integrity, crafted by conscious companies.

Meet the ecopreneurs

Bobsy Gaia is an ecopreneur who has laid the foundation for socially responsible eateries in Hong Kong for over 20 years. Bobsy is the man behind the beloved Bookworm Café on Lamma and Life Café restaurants across Hong Kong. Bobsy has since sold those businesses, but his latest masterpiece is MANA!, and if you miss Life Café, you need to make a beeline for his MANA! restaurant in Central or café in Sheung Wan. As well as giving customers a food fix for the body and soul, MANA! is also Hong Kong’s only zero-food-waste eatery.

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Bobsy is positive about the changes happening in Hong Kong’s food industry. “There is an awakening in Hong Kong. People are waking up and realising – oops, there is something called the environment and it does matter. There has been a tremendous change, a proliferation of local vegetarian restaurants. And the best metre of change is seeing the organic convenience stores pop up across the city.” Bobsy believes this awakening isn’t just a fad, it’s a genuine shift in our community.

Larry Tang is another ecopreneur offering more sustainable choices to hungry Hongkongers. Larry runs Locofama in Sai Ying Pun, and Sohofama in Central – two restaurants where the food’s provenance is key. He shares, “In my experience, people become interested in the integrity of food when one of two things enters their house: a newborn or serious illness.” It’s interesting that we’re awakened to the power of food by being touched by life or death. Larry’s restaurants were born from his personal struggle helping his father eat better while battling cancer. In a previous life, Larry was a Mad Man running an advertising agency. Now, he spends his days converting the nonbelievers by creating delicious food from ‘clean’ ingredients. His mission is to get Hongkongers making changes before that poignant life or death moment.

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Larry is passionate about shifting the perception of the masses. He says, “Hong Kong is an advanced, civilised society. As a community, I know we are ready to embrace this evolved behaviour, to be more mindful of what we eat and where it originates from. We get a lot of tourists into Sohofama – they’re often referred to us by the concierge at their hotel. This type of behaviour and consumption sets an example for the region. Hong Kong should be leading.”

Both Larry and Bobsy are working hard to change the landscape of eating in our city, and they’re not entirely alone. The start-up community in Hong Kong is also on board. Designers and ecopreneurs are busy creating solutions for everything from the world’s first desktop hive for edible insects, to hydroponic sets created specifically for our small living spaces.

Staying conscious

Enterprises like Bobsy’s and Larry’s are often called ‘conscious businesses’. But what exactly is a conscious business?

Bobsy explains, “Consciousness is about everything you do. It’s not just about menu items – it’s about where your quinoa comes from, what it’s served on, how you get rid of the waste, how staff are treated. Is the business participating in the community or just taking money from customers?”

“There is an awakening in Hong Kong, but we feel lonely in the conscious efforts in our business,” says Bobsy. “We see a lot of ‘me’ in this city – my health, my wellbeing. But we don’t see a lot of ‘we’ – the environment and community. We feel lonely – people sometimes don’t care. We hope people will join. Being conscious has given us challenges that normally aren’t there. It’s been tremendously challenging being conscious – we’ve had to invent the wheel really.”

According to Larry, “Every time you spend money on food, you’re voting. The good guys or bad guys?” Conscious businesses need as many votes as possible in order to bring down the cost of creating food with integrity; only through consumer demand (volume) will these efforts become more affordable. One of the things that Larry’s enterprise is doing differently – and consciously – is growing menu items on their premises at Sohofama. “Ideally, we want this to be our farm. Instead of working the ‘farm to table’ model, we wanted to build an urban farm where the tables are.” Although they face constant challenges maintaining their efforts, they’re making headway.

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Bobsy’s efforts to create a zero-food-waste restaurant are also part of his conscious business philosophy. He says, “The conscious business is just as proud of its back door as its front door. We try to minimise waste as much as possible.” One way he is achieving this is with enormous composting efforts. It’s great news for farmers and it means there’s more locally grown organic produce for us all to enjoy.

“We’re trying to compost everything, to operate a zero-food-waste restaurant,” says Bobsy. “Any organic matter should be going back to the soil – to help generate good soil. Without good soil, there’s no good food in Hong Kong. We’ve been making Hong Kong farmers very happy – we give them clean, vegan compost that can go straight into their system. We deliver at our own expense, it doesn’t cost them anything.”

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Is it possible to source produce entirely locally in our city? Bobsy delivers the reality: “Hong Kong doesn’t grow food as a country, so there’s no way to source locally for businesses. It’s very seasonal and very limited quantity, Hong Kong farmers are very limited in what they can give. But, Hong Kong has more than 500 organic farms now – they’ve popped up in the space of four years. That’s tremendous growth. Hong Kong farmers aren’t farming because they have no choice, they farm because they’re passionate and they want to farm. There’s a new generation of farmers, they’re university educated, and they want to bring the integrity back to Hong Kong soil.”

Bobsy is optimistic that the organic trend will continue. He concludes, “Even in supermarkets there’s a huge increase in the amount of local produce available to families. This boom in organic products and food, it’s a global awakening and Hong Kong is no exception.”

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