Food banks a vital lifeline for Japan's needy families

Food banks a vital lifeline for Japan's needy families
PHOTO: ST

Food banks, which reportedly originated in the United States in 1967 to help the needy, began to spread in Japan about 15 years ago. These facilities collect leftover food from companies and individuals and distribute it to welfare organisations and people who have difficulty affording basic necessities. Local governments have set up consultation offices to promote the Independence Support System for the Needy (see below), which was launched in April. According to a study commissioned by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, 40 food banks operated in Japan as of last year.

Lining up

In mid-May, trucks from food manufacturers and supermarkets lined up in front of the offices of Second Harvest Nagoya, a nonprofit organisation in the city's Kita Ward, full of food. Welfare officials were on hand to collect it.

Kazuma Nonoyama, a staff member at Nagoya's Komagata-ryo children's home, loaded overripe tomatoes that could not be sold and five boxes of cookies with damaged boxes into his car. "This helps us as we can give the children more to eat," he said.

Food donations include fruit and vegetables with poor colouring or shape, dented canned goods, products left over from sales, and other food that is safe to eat but would otherwise be discarded. In 2013, over 5,000 tons of food were donated.

Individual support

Second Harvest Nagoya received 510 tons of food in 2014, not only from companies and organisations, but also individuals. It distributed the food free of charge to about 260 welfare facilities, homeless support groups and other entities in Aichi, Gifu and Mie prefectures. A staff of about 20 sorts the donated food and coordinates with companies and organisations.

The NPO also provides support to individual families at the request of the local government. Twelve-kilogram bags of rice and canned food are provided up to three times to a household. Food can be selected based on lifestyle, such as family composition and whether the family owns a rice cooker.

Last year, there was a monthly average of 40 cases of individual support, but that increased to 108 this April due to the start of the Independence Support System for the Needy.

A total of 67 households received food support by the end of May through one consultation office, the Nagoya Work/Life Independence Support Center. The households have various problems, including individuals unable to work due to illness or insufficient money to purchase food until unemployment benefits start.

One woman living alone in her 60s had run out of food and money while recovering from a traffic accident. "I could not leave my apartment to go shopping because of my injuries," she said. "When the rice arrived, it brought tears to my eyes."

Sometimes the centre's staff visit a household to deliver the food. Munemaro Okuma, the head of the centre, said, "It helps build a bond of trust, making it easier to provide further support."

Second Harvest Nagoya Director Toshio Motooka also has high expectations. "With this type of co-operation, we can deliver food to those in need who are often easily overlooked." he said.

Creating a system

In Shizuoka Prefecture in May, 11 organisations, including the prefecture's welfare council for workers and NPOs, formed the Food Bank Fujinokuni. Through co-operation with 18 municipalities this year, requests for support that hovered around 50 per month jumped to 80.

"With the additional requests, we're running low on food," said Kazuki Suzuki, deputy director of the food bank. "We want co-operation from many more companies and families."

However, there are few cases like this. Costs for food storage and delivery run high, and there is little public support, meaning that many organisations have to support themselves by soliciting donations. Some companies are reluctant to donate because of fears of food poisoning or that the food they donate would be resold.

Food banks have a place in the welfare policies of Europe and the United States. In the United States, the government donates food, and there are systems in place to absolve donors of responsibility in the event of food poisoning. In Japan, public debate on these issues will be needed in the future.

14.8 per cent of families lacked food

Some families have trouble putting food on the table. In a 2012 study by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, 14.8 per cent of families experienced difficulty buying food for economic reasons in the previous year. This figure included more than 30 per cent of single-parent households, and a large number of men living alone, regardless of their age.

On the other hand, according to estimates by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, between 5 million and 8 million tons of food are thrown away by companies and families each year. This quantity compares with the amount of rice produced annually. Food banks are expected to help cut the cost of companies' waste disposal and play a beneficial environmental role.

■ Independence Support System for the Needy

A system in which local governments find and assist people having financial problems due to illness or unemployment before they receive livelihood assistance. Local governments with welfare offices - usually cities and wards; towns and villages are handled by prefectural governments, in principle - set up consultation offices. They co-operate with private organisations to provide employment training, advice on household spending and support for children's education.Speech

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