Environment: Interview

Japan’s poor reap harvest from food bank

Second Harvest Japan tackles the country's chronic wastage of edible food by distributing it to the needy
In Japan food is thrown away if it is not sold by the last third of its shelf life/ Credits: Reuters

Article at a glance

Charles McJilton is the founder and CEO of Second Harvest Japan, the country’s only nationwide food bank. The non-profit group not only helps hungry people but offers food companies a way to save money.

How does Second Harvest work?
We take food products customers will not purchase and match them up with people who can use them. 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 deliver to 60 to 70 agencies every week in the greater Tokyo area, reaching about 5,000 people, and throughout the year we deliver to about 450 agencies throughout Japan.

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.

Where does your food come from?
It could be anybody ranging from multinationals to local Japanese companies. We deal with over 400 companies. 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.
So how much food is thrown away in Japan?
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.

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.

What about discounting food going out of date rather than discarding it?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 26th or Valentine’s Day chocolates sold on February 15th.

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, laws oblige manufacturers and restaurants to recycle waste. Some is turned into animal feed, some into fertilizer, most is likely burned.

But it has to be processed first. Take our can of beans. The wrapper has to be taken off and burned. The contents have to be separated. The can of beans itself will have to be processed. This costs money and energy.
Japan is a rich country. Who needs food handouts?
In Japan, nearly 20 million people live below the poverty line. That is 15.7% of the population. 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.

What is your biggest challenge?
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 pre-designated location where people pick it up.

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.

And people are 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 trust.


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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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