November 30, 2016


Food Bank Kansai --- Providing Surplus Food to Those in Need

Keywords: Food Newsletter Resilience Well-Being 

JFS Newsletter No.171 (November 2016)

In Japan, five to eight million tons of food products are disposed of annually even though they are still fit for human consumption. The amount of this food loss is equivalent to Japan's annual rice production. Meanwhile, some people have trouble affording food because of unemployment, illness or other factors.

In an effort to improve such wasteful ("mottainai" in Japanese) conditions, food banks serve as a conduit for helping those in need by providing them food that would otherwise be discarded.

Food Bank Kansai, a non-profit organization based in Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture, collects food products donated by businesses and individuals, and delivers them for free to welfare institutions and households that need them. In this article, we report on the activities of Food Bank Kansai.

Food Loss in Japan

Japan's food self-sufficiency rate based on calories was 39 percent in 2015, which means that the nation relies heavily on imported food from foreign countries, which accounts for about 60 percent of its total food supply. Despite this, why is such a large amount of food discarded?

One of the main causes of food loss in food-related companies has to do with date labeling, that is, methods of setting and indicating "best-before" dates. The companies usually set as early an expiration date as they can (80 percent of the actual best-before period) in anticipation of consumer preference. Since there is no indication of the production date, consumers cannot judge by themselves whether expired food is still safe to eat or not.

A significant amount of food loss also results from a food distribution industry practice called the "one-third rule." Under this rule, manufacturers and wholesalers ensure that food products are delivered to retailers within one third of their lifecycle (length of time from production to the "best-before" date). Then, if the products at the retailers have not been sold before the last one-third of their lifecycle, they are pulled from the shelf and destroyed.

The food loss and waste generated by households is larger than that of the business sector. A survey has shown that 22 percent of household food waste consisted of unused food products, of which 25 percent were discarded before the expiration date. This may be because people buy or cook too much food, without grasping their food needs.

Meanwhile, economic disparities have been increasing in Japan, with the relative poverty rate reaching 16.1 percent in 2012. The relative poverty rate refers to the ratio of people living below the poverty line, or half the median amount of disposable income of the total population. According to a 2013 survey by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the relative poverty rate of children under 18 was 16.3 percent, which meant that an alarming one in six children were in poverty.

Activities of Food Bank Kansai

Food banking, which started in the U.S., has a 40-year-old history. In Japan, the first food banking organization was established in Tokyo in 2002. Separately from this, an American named Bryan Lawrence launched Food Bank Kansai in 2003.

Now, Food Bank Kansai has 85 partner companies; 64 companies donate ordinary food products and 21 donate emergency food supplies. With the help of 70 volunteers, the food bank delivers donated food to welfare institutions, people in need, single-mother families and others.

Food items to be handled include:

  • non-standard products resulting from manufacturing malfunctions (e.g., misprints on package labels, short weight, or irregular shape),
  • products that are rejected in the distribution process because of damage to packaging and/or shipping cases,
  • out-of-date products ("deliver-by" or "sell-by" date),
  • excessively inventoried seasonal products,
  • unused products donated by individual households, and
  • fresh products that remain unsold at the end of a day, such as bread, vegetables and fruits.

The collected food is delivered through the following projects:

  • Welfare institutions, to which it is delivered,
  • Food Safety Net for people requiring urgent assistance,
  • The Kodomo Genki (lively children) Network that provides support to single-mother households in need, and
  • Kodomo-Shokudo (children's cafeteria), to which food materials are provided.

Let's take a closer look at each project.

Food Deliveries to 104 Appreciative Welfare Facilities

Food gathered from associated businesses is delivered to organizations in and around Kobe and Osaka, such as orphanages, after-school day-care centers for disabled children, homeless support groups, single-mother life support groups, DV shelters, and community workshops for the disabled. As of 2016, Food Bank Kansai is delivering food to 104 places with 10,000 beneficiaries a month.

The food bank delivers retort food, canned food, seasonings and snacks once a month to each facility and bread, vegetables and fruits supplied from large supermarkets every other week.

Comments from facilities that have received food:

  • The children are delighted, saying "I'm happy!" and "Food has come again!" (an orphanage in Hyogo Prefecture)
  • Dog-tired people love to have ready-to-use retort and canned food. (a DV shelter)

Food Safety Net for Citizens in Need of Emergency Assistance

In addition to regular delivery to facilities, Food Safety Net started emergency assistance in 2012 to individuals and households with no food that day due to temporary circumstances.

This project is conducted in cooperation with government assistance. First, administrative officers obtain information from welfare-related divisions that certain people applying to them for welfare benefits are unable to get by before the welfare money can reach them or people who are ineligible for public assistance are in need of food. Then on the same day, they deliver the week's food prepared by the food bank. The advantages of this project are that the cost is minimal because food is supplied for free and people gain psychological security through access to food.

Kodomo Genki Network Hyogo

More and more single-mother families, whose numbers have been soaring recently in Japan, are suffering financially because the mothers have access only to unstable non-regular work with low salaries and long working hours. The number of children in such poor families is also increasing.

In response to these circumstances, Food Bank Kansai and three other non-profit organizations (NPOs) worked together to launch Kodomo Genki Network to support single-mother families.

One of these is the authorized NPO Supporting Women and Children Women's Net Kobe, which provides life assistance and career counseling for single mothers and support for their children's study. From families that visit it for help, it chooses those under particularly difficult condition as its members. The newly authorized NPO Ikuno Gakuen, which operates to the same effect, joined the network in April 2016. It also chooses single-mother families in special need as its members.

Another cooperating organization is the NPO Free Help, which supports members of the above NPOs by supplying clothes and daily necessities once each three months.

In addition, Food Bank Kansai supplies food once a month now to its 38 household members.

Working with these NPOs, the food bank is creating an environment for mothers to emerge from isolation and, by helping each other, raise children with more leeway and less anxiety.

Providing Kodomo Shokudo with Foodstuffs

With recent increases in the number of two-earner or single parent households, more and more children must stay at home alone or even eat dinner by themselves. Kodomo Shokudo (children's cafeteria) provides such children with supper for free or at a low price. This initiative has rapidly increased in number nationwide. Food Bank Kansai started to provide the cafeterias with foodstuffs in March 2016 to support their activities. By establishing at least one Kodomo Shokudo in each elementary school zone in the Kansai area, the food bank, in cooperation with other organizations, aims to reduce the number of children who have to eat supper alone or eat no supper and to create a society where children are fostered by the whole community.

Activities Individuals Can Do for Food Bank Kansai

There are various ways to help Food Bank Kansai as an individual.

  1. Donating Food

    If you have excess food at home, you can send the food, regardless of its volume, via parcel delivery service or by hand to the bank office. The food should be unopened, able to be stocked at room temperature and sent no later than a month before the use-by date. Especially wanted are rice, dry noodles, canned/bottled food, retort food, instant food, seasonings, baby food and non-alcoholic beverages.

  2. Food Drives

    A food drive is a group activity to collect excess food at individual homes, stockpile it at a school, community facility or workplace and send it all together to the food bank.

  3. Contributing Money

    The food bank receives food for free and distributes it for free, producing no proceeds. It relies on contributions to carry out its activities. Individuals can make contributions by becoming supporting members or donating money to the food bank at any time.

  4. Raffle Quilts

    A raffle is a charity lottery. In Europe and the United States, quilts are often made for raffles to raise funds for charity during the Christmas season. Those who purchase a ticket may win quilt made by an artist in the lottery.

  5. Volunteer Work

    Food Bank Kansai is run by volunteers and has no full-time staff. Each volunteer worker takes charge of what he or she can do such as collecting food from donor companies, distributing it to welfare institutions, checking donated food at the office, and managing food stocks.

A couple of the volunteers have given their impressions as follows:

  • When I deliver food to those in need, they receive it with pleasure and show me their appreciation with a smile. Food is fundamental for living. I am pleased to act as an intermediary for food. (Mr. N in charge of deliveries)
  • I was surprised to learn through the TV about the huge amount of food discarded. I started working as a volunteer to do something about the problem. I am struggling to distribute an optimal mix of food for better management of a facility. (Ms. I in charge of stock management)

Director Megumi Asaba of Food Bank Kansai said, "Donor companies are unwilling to discard edible food and beneficiaries are happy to receive it. Volunteers are happy to mediate for them. This feeling leads to more motivation and satisfaction among the volunteers."

We note this project is supported by the good will of many people to connect those who have excess food with those lacking food and to make use of food that would otherwise be discarded.


Written by Taeko Ohno