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Second Harvest gets the food to those who need it

Food-banking group resdistributes resources, saves firms money

by Mio Yamada

Sitting at the wheel of a 4-ton truck, Charles McJilton suddenly says, “Oh wait, wait!” before pulling off his T-shirt and swapping it for a white one with a bright orange Second Harvest Japan logo on the chest and “Food for all people” spanning his back. “It’s all about branding,” he jokes, as he slips the truck into gear and pulls out into the street.

As the executive director of Second Harvest, Japan’s first food-banking organization, which incorporated in 2002, McJilton is described on the group’s Web site as a “driver, fundraiser, public speaker, promoter of food banking in Japan and outreach coordinator.” Today, he has to deliver industrial kitchen equipment across Tokyo, from Hatanodai to the Second Harvest warehouse in Asakusabashi.

“An organic bento box company is shutting down its distribution side,” he says, gesturing at the building behind the truck. “They offered the kitchen equipment to Second Harvest because they remembered seeing us featured on a TV show.”

The pots, pans and other kitchenware, he explains, are for Second Harvest’s plans to begin a kind of “meals on wheels” operation and getting this kind of equipment was “a rare opportunity” that he just couldn’t pass up.

Eight years ago, when McJilton first conceived the idea of Second Harvest (then called Food Bank Japan), it’s unlikely that the bento-box company would have seen them on TV. There was no T-shirt “branding,” no 4-ton truck and not even a dedicated warehouse. “We didn’t have any money in 2000,” he says, laughing. “For the first couple of years I spent my own money.” Now Second Harvest has four vehicles, last year’s budget was ¥27 million, and this year he predicts it to be around ¥35-40 million.

Was there any particular turning point? “This year,” he says, bursting into laughter again. “I finally got a salary.”

McJilton jokes about his own paycheck, but when he discusses the financial situation of NPOs in Japan, his demeanor changes. As he reels off statistics, he sighs, frowns and emphasizes his points by banging on the steering wheel. “There’s 30,000 incorporated nonprofits out here,” he says. “Out of those, less than approximately 6,000 have paid staff. The average full-time equivalent is 1.5 percent. You look at the total number of people working the NPO sector here — paid, there’s maybe 8,000-9,000. Average (monthly) pay is around ¥200,000 to ¥210,000. Look at my staff here. None of us are married. It’s not because this is a hazardous job. It’s just it’s not conducive to raising a family.”

With 11 official staff, some of which are part-time only, Second Harvest also relies on around 40 -50 volunteers who help prepare and distribute food every week. “Our mailing list right now has 1,200 people,” McJilton adds, “and these are primarily people who have come out and volunteered with us at one time or another.”

One of those regular volunteers, Peter Heyman, a software engineer and consultant, joins us on the journey from Hatanodai and the two chat about organizing a food drive at the American School in Japan. It turns out that such foreign support of Second Harvest in Japan is quite common. “In the United States,” McJilton points out, “food banking has been around for over 40 years. Every single major food manufacturer participates with food-banking at some level.”

In Japan, however, it is still a relatively new concept to both government and companies, which means everything takes more time and effort: “My greatest frustration is not when a food company says no to us, I’m actually OK with that. The frustration is that they often don’t even allow the conversation to begin,” he says, before going on to explain that concerns about food safety have prevented many companies from coming on board. This concern, he stresses, is unfounded, as all the food collected goes through multiple checks, with the fifth and final one being done by a licensed nutritionist vetted by the government, at the institutions where the food is consumed.

“Companies are throwing away good food and it’s costing them money,” he says. “We could be part of a solution. They could save money, make employees feel good, expose more people to their product and even claim it as a corporate social responsibility. How good is that?”

The benefits of contributing to a nonprofit organization would indeed seem obvious, but as the truck pulls up in a small side street alongside the Sobu line train tracks in Asakusabashi, McJilton leans over and says something a little surprising: “When you write this article, one thing I ask of you is that you don’t use the letters NPO in front of our name. When people interact with us, I want them to have a different impression of what an NPO is and what it can be.”

Before he can answer my question about whether companies are put off by the NPO label, he unbuckles his seat-belt, jumps out of the truck and begins lifting out boxes of Rooibos tea from a large van parked nearby. I watch him unload a couple of boxes, then Heyman offers a tour of the warehouse.

Second Harvest’s office gives away its humble beginnings. About the size of a small one-room apartment, it’s cramped with a couple of desks, a small meeting table and a few shelves. Between June 2003 and March 2008, everything from administration to food preparations took place within the tiny space, while donations were stored in a small room next door. Before 2003, they didn’t even have their own space. Now, Second Harvest has a warehouse and a pantry, and is in the process of setting up an extra office on the third floor as well as new kitchen across the street.

As Heyman shows me giant tubs of rice, stacks of tinned products, bottles of drinks and boxes of shampoo — all donated by various companies — he explains that Second Harvest has two kinds of distribution: “wholesale” to agencies such as orphanages, elderly institutions and shelters across Japan; and “retail” distribution, shipments of food to families in need.

After McJilton joins us back in the office, and answers a few phone calls, he finally seems able to relax. Picking up a cookie, he returns to my question about the stigma of an NPO status. “First, many people think that they will be working with amateurs and second, they think it will cost them money. I want people to think differently,” he says. “To see that a for-profit company can get financial benefits from a nonprofit one.”

So he wants people to approach Second Harvest like a business?

“We are a business!” he says firmly. “We saved companies ¥35 million last year. Thirty million yen! We put ¥180 million back into the community. This is not some kind of flower-arranging group!”

As he talks of how Second Harvest saves companies considerable disposal costs and gives them free PR in process, his frustration subsides and he becomes thoughtful. “Most see us and our staff as ‘helping people,’ but I don’t define us like that. I just see companies throwing away excess food, and I see people who need it. We are a vehicle for getting from point A to B. Companies have a bunch of patches for bikes that need to be repaired, and these people have a bunch of flat tires.”

The entrepreneurial approach appears to be working. Nichirei, Japan’s largest frozen food importer, began donating in 2005, a breakthrough that McJilton says helped lead the way for other companies. To date, more than 200 companies, foreign and Japanese, have donated at some time to Second Harvest. More significantly, the recent food-banking symposium held at Shinsei Bank on Oct. 16 pulled in over 150 participants, of which only three were foreigners.

“Now that is incredible,” says McJilton. “The rest were Japanese and from all walks of life. Two years ago, 70 percent would have been foreigners.”

His overall outlook, however, is not necessarily rosy. “I don’t want to be pessimistic, but the reality is we have at least 650,000 people who lack food security in Japan, and that figure does not include migrant workers or those with low-income families. Yet there is no systematic way to get these people the aid they need. What we do is to send out packages from our pantry, but that’s just a drop in the bucket considering how many people are in need.”

The homeless, who are often misconceived as the main group of people lacking food security, only account for 4 percent of the 650,000 estimate. A more disturbing number, McJilton points out, is the elderly. Second Harvest says 260,000, about 1 percent of the elderly population, are in need of food, but McJilton says, in reality, given the poverty rate for seniors is 22 percent, as much as 10 percent, if not more, may require food aid. ” But your paper will never be allowed to print that figure,” he says with a grin, citing the lack of an independent body that can verify this higher percentage.

Insufficient food security is a nationwide problem and as the first incorporated food bank (there is now a food bank in Kansai, and two more that will incorporate in 2009) Second Harvest keeps McJilton busy. He checks his watch, “I should go,” he says, already standing up from his chair. And as I step outside to talk to a few of the volunteers, he waves cheerily and is gone.

For further information see Second Harvest’s Web site.