Environment: Interview

Food banking helps feed hungry in Japan

With millions starving, how can we throw away so much edible food? Charles McJilton, CEO of Second Harvest Japan, explains one solution.
In Japan food is thrown away if it is not sold by the last third of its shelf life/ Credits: Reuters

Allianz Knowledge: How much food is thrown away in Japan?
Charles McJilton: Japan throws away approximately one third of all edible food. Japanese consumers probably have the highest standards for food in the world, which creates a lot of wastage. We call it ‘the three Ps’: anything that is not perfect, pristine or pretty will not be purchased.

You collect and redistribute food donations. Is this food still edible?
Take a can of beans, for example: it is made in January and has a one-year shelf life. If it is not delivered to the wholesaler in the first third of its shelf life—by March or April—it will be thrown away. If it is not sold by the last third of its shelf life, it will be thrown away.

This is made worse by the fact that Japan imports 60 percent of its food. Let’s say one can of beans is made overseas on January 15 and another on January 30. Both are shipped to Japan, but the January 30 can arrives first. The January 15 can is then considered old and will not be sold.

What about discounting food that is going out of date, rather than discarding it?
Generally the Japanese don’t do it. Prepared products, like supermarket bento lunch boxes, may be discounted, but you will not find Christmas products sold on December 26 or Valentines’ Day chocolates sold on February 15.

People feel if they buy at a discount it has a lower value therefore it degrades the experience. There is also a sense that if you bought at a discount and I bought at full price that is somehow unfair.

Does all this wasted food go into landfill?
No, because laws oblige manufacturers and restaurants to recycle waste. Some is turned into animal feed, some into fertilizer, most likely it is burned. But it has to be processed first.

Take our can of beans. The wrapper has to be taken off and then burned. The contents of the can have to be separated. Then the can of beans itself will have to be processed. This costs money and energy.

We take food products customers won’t purchase and match them up with people who can use them.

Japan is a rich country, who needs food handouts?
It is mainly welfare institutions, from orphanages to hospices, and the poor. The name Second Harvest comes from ancient times when people would go through the fields and take what was left over after the first harvest to feed the poor.

In Japan, nearly 20 million people live below the poverty line, which is one half of the average annual income. That is 15.7 percent of the population, the fourth highest level of poverty in the OECD. Out of that 20 million about 750,000 people need food.

The poverty rate in Japan has risen dramatically in the last 25 years. What hasn’t kept pace with that is the infrastructure to support these people in need.

Where does the food come from? Who are your main donors?
It could be anybody ranging from multinationals like Kellogg and Heinz to local Japanese companies. We deal with over 400 companies, who fall into two categories: those who are doing a one-off donation and those who are making regular donations.

Food products coming in are either sent directly to us by the companies, or we make arrangements to go and pick them up.

How do you get them to give you food?
They have the food sitting there. We only need to allay their fears. They want to know that if their food is taken out of their normal supply chain it won’t get resold and it will be used correctly so that no one will get sick. Those were the hurdles we had to clear to get them on board.

At the same time, on the recipient side, people were wary of receiving free food. They often feel there must be some catch—a surprise bill later, or the food is damaged. It takes time to build up trust.

How does Second Harvest work?
We do four basic things: provide about 800 hot meals every Saturday in Ueno Park in Tokyo; deliver food boxes directly to needy households by courier; send food to agencies; and advocacy and development. 

We go out to a wholesale supermarket six days a week, pick up bread, vegetables and fruit, come back and add some dry products to food boxes, and then go and deliver them in the afternoon.

We deliver to 60 to 70 agencies every week in the greater Tokyo area, reaching about 5000 people, and throughout the year we deliver to about 450 agencies throughout Japan.


What is your biggest challenge?
The problem is getting food to people in a systematic way. We can mail it by courier, but that only reaches a few families. An alternative is to take it to an agency where people can pick it up. Another way is to take it to a predesignated location where people pick it up.

But some agencies don’t want to take our food. They feel it is difficult. Or they feel that these people don’t really exist, or they should ‘get a job’. That is the frustrating thing for me.

What is the next step for food banking in Japan?
One idea is to create an emergency food safety net for the individual. In a phone book there is always a number for police, fire and hospital. Why not have a number for food?

The Japanese use the word ‘lifeline’ to refer to gas, water, and electricity infrastructure. Why not have food lifelines too?

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Comments (2)

J. Richman: 04.01.2013, 14:33

While I have sympathy for the aims of this project, I am afraid this article is largely nonsense, and the author obviously has no knowledge of Japan, its people, or the way they eat. Having lived there for sixteen years I can assure you that the vast majority of Japanese shoppers (especially housewives) are cost conscious and frugal. The Japanese appreciate good packaging but the idea that they won't touch anything unless it's perfect is a complete myth. Japanese stores DO discount food on a regular basis. More importantly, the Japanese hate wasting food and it is considered almost immoral not to eat everything on your plate. When you compare the vast quantities of perfectly good food that the English throw straight into their bins everyday, I can assure you that the Japanese are extremely waste conscious and respectful towards their food.

Joan Bailey: 12.10.2010, 02:01

I'm curious to know where you found your data and when it was gathered. I've been looking about to find out more about food waste and recycling in Japan, but most information seems to be more than a few years old. I'm glad to hear an organization like Second Harvest is up and running in Japan, as it seems there is so much food that could be effectively redistributed.

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