ProjectsPast and current JFS projects


January 22, 2009


Food Security in Developed Countries

charlessan.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Charles E. McJilton, Executive Director at Second Harvest Japan

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), about 19.5 million people in Japan live below the poverty line. Our own research reveals that there are at least 650,000 people who lack food security. Second Harvest Japan provides food to such people and the organizations that support them.

Providing Food Security to All

Food security means, "Having access to enough safe, nutritious food in a socially acceptable manner to carry daily life-tasks." For example, only eating instant noodles, bread, or rice balls (onigiri) every day can lead to malnutrition. Conversely, while ample amounts of nutritious food can be found in garbage cans such as fruit, vegetables, meat, and bread, taking this food directly from garbage cans is neither safe nor socially acceptable. Simply having something in one's stomach is not food security. A third example would be skipping meals either to feed another family member or to pay for essential needs such as medicine, rent and/or utilities.

Who accounts for most of these 650,000 people who lack food security? Although the media often spotlights the homeless, they account for only 4% of these people in need. The largest group consists of mostly single-parent households and elderly people, which account for 53% and 43%, respectively.

Ministry of Health and Welfare demographic data shows that about 3.4 million live in single-parent households. We estimate that if just 10% lack food security, this would come to 340,000 people. Keep in mind that the poverty rate is 15.3%, but the poverty rate for kids in single-parent houses is 67%. It is not uncommon for a parent to skip a meal in order to stretch food budgets to feed everyone. The elderly situation is more of a concern. If we estimate that just 1% of the nearly 28 million elderly lack food security, that number becomes 280,000. However, realistically this number is much higher as the poverty rate among the elderly is closer to 22%.

In contrast, about 20 million tons of food are simply thrown away every year in Japan. This amount is twice the 8.5 million tons annually provided worldwide in food aid. It's a terrible waste.

"Second Harvest"

One response to this situation of abundance of food and people in need is food banking.

"Second Harvest" literally means to harvest again what was left in the fields. Since incorporating as a nonprofit corporation in 2002, we have delivered food donations to over 400 locations from Hokkaido to Okinawa. Food banking first started in 1967 in the US and there are now over 200 food banks nationwide. Moreover, nearly every major food manufacturer, distributor and retail chain participates in food banking at some level. In addition, there is wide public and government support for food banking. In Japan, on the other hand, food banking is relatively new and we are the first incorporated food bank.

Our slogan is "Food for All People," and we carry out four activities to realize this goal: the hot meal program; Harvest Pantry; food banking; and advocacy and development.

Our first activity is our meal program: Each week we prepare 500 hot meals at our warehouse in Asakusabashi and distribute them in Ueno Park, Tokyo. These meals consist of rice, vegetables, a side-dish, meat (when available), bread, miso soup, and other supplemental items. We have about 30-40 volunteers come and help with the preparation, distribution, and cleanup. While this is our most publicly visible activity, it accounts for less than 10% of the total amount of food we redistribute.

The second activity is Harvest Pantry. Right now there is no place in all of Japan where those in need of emergency groceries can go and systematically receive food assistance. Harvest Pantry is one small step in creating this safety net for households in need. Several times a week we pick up fruit, vegetables, and bread at Costco and bring them back to our warehouse for repackaging. We then take these repackaged items and add canned goods, rice and other foodstuffs to create an emergency care package weighing on average 15kg. We take great care to match the contents of the packages with the customs of that household. For instance, if a family does not eat pork for religious reasons, then we will make sure that nothing with pork is sent. When these packages have been packed, they are sent to designated households that have been identified by cooperating agencies using Sagawa Express's door-to-door delivery service.

Among people using this service, there is a woman who is trying to start a new life in her own apartment after living in a shelter for victims of spousal abuse. As she is quite anxious about her new life, we will attempt to ease her transition by delivering food twice a month for three months. The people who benefit from this service are often very grateful, and we believe that the human connections formed helps them feel safe and ease the worry felt over other concerns. Providing such peace of mind seems like a small thing, but we feel that it is among our most important activities.

We consider this assistance to be an emergency measure not a long-term solution to their problem. Our plan is to build a national network where emergency food is stocked at community centers, temples, shrines, or churches throughout Japan and people in need simply go to these places for assistance.

Our third, and main activity, is food banking. Here we are working with large volumes of food. We collect these food donations and send them to welfare agencies that support those in need.

This activity has the following advantages for food companies.

  1. Companies can save on the cost to destroy or return food that can no longer be sold. It costs about 100 yen per kilogram to dispose food. So, a ten-ton truck costs about one million yen and requires an industrial waste disposal company. This cost saving is the biggest advantage for the companies.

  2. Boosts employee morale. It is difficult for everyone, including employees to dispose of food that is still edible. When we take the food, employees have an opportunity to imagine where and who gets the food. Rather than dumping it, they are relieved to know that it is going to help those in need.

  3. An opportunity for CSR. This activity is part of corporate social responsibility, or CSR, in which companies contribute to society as good corporate citizens. For example, a company that would need to dispose of 10 tons of product can immediately save 1 million yen. They can legitimately say they donated 6 million yen back into the company, which is the value of the product.

  4. An opportunity for free marketing. In one case, we received five tons of individual packages of raisins that offered a prize on an attached sticker. Unfortunately, the adhesive on the stickers was too strong, and they ripped the packages when trying to peel stickers off. Even though the raisins were totally fine, the company had to collect and discard them; thus, we took them instead. The company initially targeted convenience stores as the products' market, but they were able to distribute this product to secondary markets, such as nursing homes, through us.

A bridge between donors and recipients

Our main activities are in the Kanto area, but we do deliver once a month to Nagoya and Kansai as well as regular trips to Kyushu. Through increased media exposure we have received many contacts from various people throughout Japan. In order to encourage the growth of food banking in Japan, we will start a certified system as one way to both create opportunities for those to participate in food banking as well as create standards for food banking.

A person will participate in a one-day training program and take a test. The training will cover three areas: Donor concerns, welfare concerns and food banking principles. By establishing standards for food banking, we hope to see this system expand throughout the nation.

The most important aspect of our activities is a relationship of trust. First, there must be a relationship of trust between the food donor and Second Harvest Japan. We often tell a potential donor, "More than your donation, we want to have a trusting relationship." We believe that once this relationship exists, it is natural for donations to flow. The next part is our trusting relationship with those we serve. It is important for us to know who we are distributing to and who they are serving. When this trusting relationship exists, it eliminates this hierarchical relationship that can sometimes exist between those who are giving and those who are receiving. In addition, we understand that this relationship between donors and the recipients is a mutually beneficial one. Donors do not like to see their food destroyed and agencies welcome the donations.

We do not define our job as rescuing people. Rather, we like to think of ourselves building bridges between various groups for mutual benefit.

Reverend King once said "If not us, then who? If not now, then when?" Rather than waiting for someone else to do something, we believe that anyone can do something constructive today to make a difference for a better tomorrow.