Heping West Road divides Taipei into two parts, with the east side full of high-rises and the west side consisting of shabby, worn out apartments. However, as early as 1963, the west-side Nanjichang Apartment was the most advanced condominium in Taipei, equipped with everything from flush toilets to underground cables to a spiral staircase. However, after 1980, the east side underwent rapid urban development, resulting in ever-rising house prices and the decline of the west side of the capital. What was left was Nanjichang Apartment’s small suites of about 27, 33 or 40 square metres to accommodate people living on the edge of the city.
The local Zhongqin Borough is home to more than 3,000 households, among which are 190 low-income households, 1,195 senior residents, 66 elderly residents living alone, 536 physically- challenged residents and 400 foreign spouses. The proportion of all these groups are above the municipal averages. Indeed, more than 70 per cent of students at the local elementary school come from a high-risk family.
After Fang Ho-sheng, who moved to Nanjichang at the age of six, witnessed the rise and decline of the local community, he decided to assume the office of Borough Mayor and look after the disadvantaged residents. Every day he had to prepare 150 meals to keep the old and young fed. However, he didn’t have enough funding for this social project. Suddenly, an idea came to him: soon-to-expire food could be a great help!
Helping the disadvantaged by building a community kitchen and food bank
From 2002, Fang Ho-sheng started not only to deliver meals to senior residents, but also to initiate social services such as after-school care, health education and a community library. With more and more projects going on, he needed a much bigger space to sustain his charitable activity and successfully persuaded the Ministry of Defense to rent out a derelict house which used to be a residence for generals. Soon after he had obtained enough funding from fundraising and jumble sales, he finally turned a 662 square metre “haunted house” into a “community kitchen”.
This community kitchen directly delivers meals to the residences of isolated, incapacitated and low income seniors who are constrained to their beds. As for those seniors who can still walk, they can pick up food from the kitchen. Those seniors whose children or grandchildren need to work during the day can enjoy lunch at the kitchen instead of dining alone. To cater to the needs of these many seniors, the community kitchen must prepare 150 meals a day.
After experiencing a shortage of food ingredients, Fang Ho-sheng started to seek help from the nearby Carrefour and traditional markets, asking them to donate unsaleable or unsold fruit and vegetables, such as bruised cabbages, misshapen cucumbers or ruptured capsicums. Many vegetable vendors told him one after another, “Mr. Mayor, if you like, we can send these foods here every week.”
Later, even delicatessens and food processing businesses voluntarily gave Fang Ho-sheng unsold or unsaleable products. For example, a restaurant donated 400 substandard chickens that had been rejected by its clients to Zhongqin Borough. Another business donated 20 boxes of Pacific saury that were three centimetres short of what its client expected. All of these food donations were happily accepted by Fang Ho-sheng.
Apart from giving meals to local seniors, Fang Ho-sheng also looks after their health. One day when he brought oil and rice contributed by temples to visit some seniors who lived alone, he discovered that the rice he had given them last time was infested with rice weevils, which meant that they could not eat much of it. Instead of rice, what they needed were things like milk powder, dietary supplements and nappies. He then took the rice back and while washing it thought to himself, “Why not let those in need pick out what they require themselves?” After this, he decided to create a food bank in his community.
He persuaded the National Property Administration to lend him an abandoned post office, which was later renovated into a food bank in 2013. All the dried food and daily necessities on offer are displayed inside the building for those who qualify as low-income or lower-middle-income households or for emergency aid. Every month these people can get 500 points, which can be used in exchange for what they need.
The prices of products here are set much lower than in conventional shops, ranging from a half of the original retail price to a fifth. However, not every item here is priced below 500 “points”, which means that sometimes frequenters need to volunteer before they can get what they want. “People are welcome to be volunteers with us. It doesn’t matter whether they deliver meals, help out with jumble sales, provide domestic services, patrol the community or manage library books, they get 20 points for volunteering one hour. In the Nanjichang community, disadvantaged people can do more than just being helped. If they can ask help from the Borough Mayor, they can also help other people. This way gives them dignity,” said Fang Ho-sheng.
Housebook60 and the Food Sharing Refrigerator prolong the shelf life of food
After Fang Ho-sheng saw that Carrefour employees were dumping still edible bread, he talked to the Carrefour Foundation, which later decided to fund his project. With this funding, restaurant Housebook60 was officially established in 2016. Surplus food was to be the main source of food ingredients, which would be cooked by professional chefs before being presented to senior members of the community.
However, the source of surplus food was later found to be quite limited. Therefore, Housebook60 is not currently providing meals made with surplus food. Nevertheless, even though it is only selling desserts and beverages, Fang Ho-sheng’s willingness to share has not changed. He has set up a Food Sharing Refrigerator at the front door of the restaurant, providing free ready meals and packaged food. During a conversation one day, an owner of a popular bakery said that he had to chuck out a big box of bread every day, which was very upsetting for him. Hearing this, Fang Ho- sheng patted his own chest and promised he could handle all the unsold bread. Another example is the overstocking of pineapple cakes after a decline in the number of Chinese tourists to Taiwan due to political tensions. All unsaleable pineapple cakes are also rescued by the Food Sharing Refrigerator.
At the moment, the majority of food in the refrigerator is bread, along with steamed buns, stuffed buns, lunch boxes, biscuits and noodles. Every day there is at least 30 kilograms of food stored there. However, all the food is carefully checked before being put in the refrigerator. At first, only untouched food was collected. This was later examined by two professional chefs before being stored in small packages tagged with that day’s date and put in the refrigerator.
Every afternoon at 4:30 pm, the refrigerator is filled with food. In the early days, all the food was taken away in ten minutes. Later, Fang Ho-sheng told everyone that each person could only take two to three items. As a result, about 200 people can now enjoy the benefit of the refrigerator, which is cleared as slowly as half an hour after it is loaded up each time.
The journey of breaking down social barriers has not finished. Fang Ho-sheng has worked on this cause for 18 years, simply because members in his community have always believed that there are more social barriers waiting to be broken in the future.