Daisy Tam: “If the answers [to a problem] are exclusive, then no system will work.”

Feb 22, 2024 8:23 AM

Anushree Majumdar

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February 23, 2024


“If the answers [to a problem] are exclusive, then no system will work.”

by Anushree Majumdar

An interview with Daisy Tam, Associate Professor, Hong Kong Baptist University, Founder of the Breadline app, and the first AuthEx Fellow 2024

In 2004, during Daisy Tam’s first year as a PhD student in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College in London, UK, she found a part-time job selling apples at Borough Market. After attaining her Master’s degree in Comparative Literature at the University College London, Tam was drawn to urban food systems and was working on a critical cultural analysis on food waste. What began as a way to observe the food chain became some kind of a calling — Tam embarked on mission to put her learnings to good use in Hong Kong, the city she calls home. What followed was an innovative app, Breadline, that connects bakeries with volunteers who pick up leftover loaves to deliver to charities. In a conversation with the Digital Narratives Studio, she talks about how entwined the issues of food rescue and food security are with issues of care, and the ways in which collective responsibility can be viewed as a function of digital authorship.


Digital Narratives Studio (DNS): Would you say that your part-time job at Borough Market changed the course of your life?

Daisy Tam (DT): Yes, it did. As most PhD students, I too wanted to immerse myself in theory; everybody around me was reading philosophy and I was impressed by that, I wanted to learn to speak in that kind of high language too. But my supervisor, who was also an anthropologist, said, “You need to go and talk to the people. There is something called participant observation. You don’t have to simply conduct interviews or surveys — there are more ways of genuinely experiencing the field.” At the time, Borough Market was the market, it was the farmer’s market and it was a lot less touristy back then. The mornings were filled with regular customers, and I thought it was a good place to start. I began wandering around the edges of the market, and soon, befriended somebody who had a family-run business there. They used to provide for Tesco but with the changing aesthetic standard at the supermarkets — an apple should be two-thirds red, one-third green — made it untenable for this family to keep working for Tesco, and so they began selling their produce by themselves. It was the ideal case study to be writing about since I was interested in these ethical food movements.

I was supposed to interview this gentleman but on that particular day, his part-time staff called in sick. There was a lot of rush in the morning and he was the only one at the till, but this proved to be very helpful because the exchange between the farmer/seller and the customers gave me a lot of insights. And after hanging around for three hours or so, I began helping out as well. I had absorbed a fair bit of information about the produce and so I could talk to the customers about the apples, the farming practices etc. I didn’t get the interview but I got a lot of hands-on experience, and some free apples that day.

A few weeks later, the part-time help at the shop quit and I took over the position; that was my point of entry as an ethnographer, a participant observer. I realized how important banter at the market was: from the till with the customers, to the shop owners and farmers; later, the butchers as well. They were dear to me because I always enquired about cuts of meat and one of them was generous and offered to teach me the trade. As I worked up the food chain, I saw the ways in which food was circulated: how leftovers were carefully discarded so that it could still be accessed by those who needed it. I had a ring-side view to this grey economy and I understood how important this kind of informal system was to the running of the market.

DNS: When you returned to Hong Kong in 2011, what were the differences in the food distribution system that stood out to you?

DT: There were some immediate cultural differences. I tried to replicate that way of doing research but nobody goes to the wet markets apart from domestic workers or retired people. I tried getting a job there but no one wanted me. But I thought, what if questions about food waste were asked at the city-level: what happens to all the leftover food that doesn’t get eaten or sold; where does it go; if it gets recycled, how? This set me on the path of food rescue, which is even wider because it concerns the well-being and sustainable development of cities.

Class keeps cropping up during these conversations because I think a lot of these sustainability or ethical practices or fair-trade, it is still only for a certain privileged section of society. We have to look for solutions that make a practice feasible for everyone. A few years ago, a celebrity chef was on TV, offering tips to people living in sub-divided housing in Hong Kong. Her advice included steps like blanching before frying, to maintain the colour of particular ingredients, and while that was good to know, this sort of suggestion was quickly rejected on the grounds that it would only increase a person’s gas bill. If the answers are ‘exclusive’, then no system will work.

DNS: What was the starting point in trying to address these particular issues?

DT: The system in 2011 is no different from the system we have today. My slide deck is the most economical one because I’ve barely had to update it! The facts are the same — we import 95% of the food we eat, 20% of the population live in poverty, over 3000 tonnes of food are thrown into landfills everyday — I’ve been saying these points for a long time. So, when I returned, I got involved in the food charity rescue sector, volunteered with many charities and communal kitchens with my students. There was a lot of food rescue programmes but it was mainly bread. I felt annoyed because the system was not streamlined: you would have to travel to places that might not actually have the food ready for pickup, you’d have to wait and that was a waste of time. It went from being a food issue to a logistics issue. How do you design a solution that can oversee an entire city with a short time window?

So, I began talking to different people, including data scientists I met through the Open Source community. The idea of Breadline had been growing in my head and so did the idea of care: for the environment, for sustainability but also our time and efforts.


Photo by Chromatograph on Unsplash


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

DNS: You established the Breadline app in 2018-19, a year before the COVID-19 pandemic. What did you witness during the pandemic in terms of food availability?

DT: We launched the pilot during the social movements in Hong Kong, and it was a nightmare due to last-minute cancellations and restrictions on movement. And when we formally launched it, the pandemic hit! I thought I was jinxed and that it was never going to take off.

But it was the opposite. There were so many people who found themselves stuck in Hong Kong, and there were a lot of good-hearted folks who quickly formed a strong core team. One of the members of the core team, Simon, joined after he heard me speak on a radio programme; he picked up the phone, called me and said he wanted to help. And in three-and-a-half years, I think he’s taken only one day off.

There were also people who felt a lot of disillusionment and despair after the social movement and they needed a channel for how they were feeling; I strongly feel that people need a place to channel their energies into, that also makes them feel like they’re doing something that matters. Lugging bread around the city isn’t changing the world but if you’re carrying around loads of loaves, in the heat and humidity, to reach it to people in need, you have done something good. We normally deliver to refugee communities who are given an allowance but can only shop at one supermarket which proves to be expensive for them.

During the pandemic, we witnessed a lot of panic around food availability. Food security took on a different meaning because there were empty shelves in the supermarkets, resulting from a dip in the supply chain as well as panic buying. Before the pandemic, as long as you had money, you could have food any time you wanted — that assurance was missing now. This was also a time when the formal charities closed shop and that was terrible. There was a shortage of fresh produce and at one point, everybody in the refugee communities was eating just canned corn. We mobilized and reached out to fruit and vegetable vendors to source nutritional food for these families.

DNS: When we talk about care and caremaking in the digital context, as a function of digital authorship, how do you think about it?

DT: Too often, we associate care with the idea of the Good Samaritan — care is then recognized as a personal quality. Depending on the individual’s goodwill is not sustainable, the system of caregiving has to be sustainable. At Breadline, we do contingency planning, in case people cannot show up; we want to be agile, so that if one person cannot run a route, others can pick up the food. This allows this transient community of volunteers to perform and deliver this care practice consistently.

For me, when I talk about care and caremaking in the digital context, I’m talking about designing digital systems so that care gets delivered. If we can normalize and habitualize care, then people will do it regularly as opposed to once a year or in times of crisis, or in the aftermath of an event. Care is often perceived as a solution, instead of prevention, which it could be; that idea instinctively resonates with me. We need to change the default and make care the status quo. This is what I would like to explore in great detail at the AuthEx Fellowship, along with my fellow academics from Germany and Hong Kong.