August 20, 2013


Food Waste and Disaster Relief from the Perspective of the Food Bank (Part Two)

Keywords: Civil Society / Local Issues Food Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.131 (July 2013)

Food banks receive food donations from a wide variety of sources such as importers, food companies, wholesalers, retailers, and individuals. They then deliver these donations directly to welfare institutions, nonprofits, and faith-based groups serving those in need.

In Part 1 of last month's JFS Newsletter, the Sustainable Food Business Study Group, led by JFS's General Manager Riichiro Oda, reported on the current conditions of food waste activities in Japan, following a workshop held with Masahiro Otake of Second Harvest Japan (2hj), and 2hj board member Kazumasa Haijima, who was on staff with 2hj in Tohoku during the disaster relief operations.

This month we will introduce 2hj, which incorporated on March 11, 2002 as the first food bank in Japan, and their relief work in response to the disasters on 3.11 in Tohoku.


Disaster Relief Amidst Chaos

On March 11, 2011, when the massive earthquake hit east Japan, 2hj responded by providing stranded commuters in Tokyo with hot soup and bread. The following day they carried out their normal soup kitchen and discussed how best to respond. On March 13, CEO Charles McJilton accompanied CNN to Sendai as an interpreter. The following day 2hj trucks arrived in Sendai and linked up with two non-profit organizations (NPOs) in Sendai, One-Family and Food Bank Tohoku AGAIN. They established an office close to City Hall and this was used to coordinate a response. They reached out to food banks in other areas of Japan and asked if local businesses had relief supplies they wished to donate.

When 2hj staff, Kazumasa Haijima arrived in Sendai on March 14, he went to the disaster relief headquarters to get a better picture of what was going on. This center was run by the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). Information was chaotic and it was not clear who was in charge. Haijima remembers, "I was finally able to talk to one official, but he looked like he had probably not slept at all during those four days. I didn't think or expect the government would be able to perform their administrative functions very well. I thought we would need to separate what we could do from what the government could do. We decided to skip the places where the government and the JSDF could provide food, while we, as private organizations, would serve places with insufficient support, and people who were not on the lists for government support."

Making Best Use of Aid

Outside of Sendai in neighboring Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture, 2hj delivered food to collection centers where relief supplies were already being gathered. They coordinated with a group in Sendai to send 10 tons of water to an organization in Fukushima. They offered other support that matched local needs.

In the early stages most victims were staying in emergency evacuation centers and 2hj provided as much food relief as the center would accept. As relief operations progressed, so did the living conditions of the survivors. Many went to live in prefabricated temporary housing and 2hj changed the type of aid they provided as well as the method. A continue internal discussion was how to provide aid without hindering recovery.

Because the situation changed on a daily basis, there was no single, uniform way to respond. What worked one day may not the following day because of supplies on hand. 2hj quickly found that the government's approach was to respond with uniform supplies -- everyone should receive the same thing and amount. Having 99 units is not good enough when you need to serve 100 people. There were many cases in which aid was not distributed or delayed by the government because not enough aid had been collected to assure each person the exact same amount. The ideal role played by NPOs was to fill in the gaps when there was not enough to be distributed or the government wanted to wait.

Another issue 2hj faced later in their relief activities was private information protection rules. The government cannot disclose private information and so there was no way knowing exactly who or where the people in need were. Victims living in prefabricated temporary housing that could be identified via Internet search tended to receive a lot of support. But those who were living in existing, vacant private houses serving as temporary quarters were left out of the support lists.

Setting up a prefabricated temporary housing unit costs on average four to five million yen (about US$ 40,000-51,000). Using private houses as a temporary shelter can cut costs substantially. In Sendai alone, about 8,000 households were living in such private houses being used as temporary shelters. There was no way to support these people without disclosure of their information. Haijima reports, "We were continually looking for a way to gather such information in our daily efforts."

Preparedness Makes a Big Difference During an Emergency

In an emergency access to information and goods are concentrated in the disaster zone. In the case of the disaster countermeasures office Sendai of the Miyagi prefectural government, 2hj found it difficult to ask government officials working under those extreme conditions to make decisions. They found that a liaison is needed between those who offer support and those in the disaster zone.

Because 2hj is based in Tokyo, they could only ask local officials for the most necessary information. Basically, the work of cooperation was consolidated at the head office in Tokyo and the approach was to compile everything there and send the necessary information and goods to the disaster-affected areas.

Food companies also need to consider the correct timing schedule for providing support in times of emergency. Support tends to fade away if too much is provided in the initial stage. For examples, in 2013 the number of supporters in the disaster zone has significantly decreased. Carefully considering the timing of support and creating a platform to explore the possibilities during ordinary times will make handling emergency situations better.

At one point in the initial phase, some municipalities decided to stop receiving food donations from private individuals because sorting was impossible. 2hj, on the other hand, was accepting private relief supplies and it received about four tons every day from all over Japan and overseas. Staff and about 100 volunteers sorted the food and delivered it to the disaster-affected areas at the necessary times. This clearly illustrated the important truth that work patterns and cooperation networks that function at ordinary times can become an effective foundation for dealing with emergency situations.

Because of Haijima's background in the Jodo sect of Buddhism, he was involved with a project known as the "One bushel (about 1.5 kilograms) of rice movement" before the disaster. In this project, rice is collected from supporters of local Buddhist temples and donated to local food banks. Soon after the disaster, he talked about creating a flow to consolidate the efforts of temple supporters.

The experience gained in responding to the disaster led some local temples to begin playing a role somewhat like a food bank by collecting and providing food to local welfare facilities. Utilizing the social resources of temples can in some cases work better than a system with the unfamiliar foreign name of "food bank."

If this kind of flow were created across Japan, it might be able to consolidate support regionally and deliver it to those in need should another emergency situation occur. This work is in progress now.

The Value of Food as a Communication Tool

Currently, 2hj conducts relief activities in Ishinomaki through an office it set up in 2011. In other areas they provide relief supplies regularly and continuously to organizations in which local people participate. Because such activities will be needed for many more years to come, it was decided it was not very efficient to keep visiting all of the disaster areas from Tokyo. Haijima reports, "It is very important to make it easy for local people to join in our relief activities rather than do everything ourselves because otherwise these efforts will not be sustained as a social resource in the local affected areas. We would rather focus on gathering food so we can provide the necessities to local people at the necessary time."

The reason why 2hj chose Ishinomaki for its satellite office is because the damage in the area was significant. It is said there are some 2,000 households whose were damaged that do not always get support. "It is important to regularly visit people because otherwise we might not realize when they are in a serious situation," reports Haijima. This is one reason 2hj set up an office there. There are many other NPOs that 2hj works with in the region to get food those in need like they do in Ishinomaki.

Starting in June 2011, 2hj began packing and sending care packages to those in need in the region. Each care package contains basic staples such as rice, soy sauce, oil, sugar, and canned goods. Some recipients who have fled the region live in Tokyo and 2hj supports them as well. In the last two years they have sent more than 15,000 packages. They continue sending about 350 packages a month and will continue to do so.

Additionally, 2hj supports local groups in Tohoku who wish to create their own food bank. There are many NPOs in Sendai and Fukushima, whereas they are scarce in Iwate and particularly along the coast. Haijima comments, "We have seen some independent action aimed at creating a social movement in Tohoku in reaction to the earthquake and its aftermath, and so we are cooperating with local people who hope to set up food banks in Fukushima and Iwate, both of which were hard hit by the earthquake."

While corporations regularly donate food, it is important to also provide emotional support. When 2hj visits people they are able to use food as a communication tool to see how they are doing and if everything is OK.

For many victims these food donations are a message that they have not been forgotten. Volunteers have, in the past, written words of encouragement on the boxes. In addition, 2hj regularly provides paid postcards inside for the recipients to send messages back to 2hj. These postcards are often quite moving and give a real glimpse into the meaning of these care packages.

The activities of 2hj will be increasingly important in Japan -- a country where the number of the poor is increasing, and which has not been fully recovered yet from the disasters on March 11, 2011. As natural disasters are likely to occur again, JFS would like to closely watch their activities.

Adapted from the Sustainable Food Business Study Group Summary by Hiroyo Hasegawa