Second Harvest rallies support for Tohoku

by Melinda Joe

By 9 a.m. on Thursday morning, March 24, several delivery trucks have deposited boxes of emergency supplies in front of the Taito Ward, Tokyo warehouse of Second Harvest Japan, a charity-based food bank.

Ever since the Tohoku-Kanto earthquake, which brought with it a terrifying 14-meter tsunami, ravaged northeastern Japan on March 11, Second Harvest’s tiny office has been serving as a key point for disaster relief. These days, the place is a whirlwind of activity. Just as founder and executive director Charles McJilton steps through the door, a powerful aftershock rattles the building and sends everyone out onto the street. Once the tremor passes, the staff members file in and get back to work preparing to send another shipment of supplies to the Tohoku region.

In the days immediately following the earthquake, the Tokyo-based NGO was one of the first local aid groups to respond. They put out an urgent call for donations and set out to distribute food to survivors in Miyagi Prefecture. “We went up to Miyagi on Sunday and were on the ground from Monday (March 14),” McJilton says.

After an initial field assessment, Second Harvest Japan members devised a plan to provide emergency supplies to disaster victims through March. According to a survey released on March 28 by national broadcaster NHK, there are still more than 190,000 people living in temporary shelters all over the country. Together with other nonprofit organizations and local governmental agencies, Second Harvest established a network that would deliver food and other necessities to the distribution centers responsible for allocating provisions to the emergency shelters. The team then set up an office in Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture, to collect information on conditions in evacuation sites and to coordinate deliveries with the distribution centers, which had sprung up almost overnight in the wake of the disaster.

Despite the long drive the previous day to and from Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, McJilton is voluble and shows no signs of fatigue. It’s a good thing he’s so full of energy, as he’ll be making a similar journey in a day’s time. For the last two weeks, McJilton and his crew have been driving two four-ton trucks from Tokyo to various locations along the coasts of Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures every other day. These trucks are loaded with donated food products such as canned soups, rice and retort-pouch curries that can be used to feed people via soup-kitchen operations. After April 5, Second Harvest will scale back its shipments but will plan further deliveries based on the needs of the affected areas.

Support for the cause has been overwhelming. Donations have come pouring in from corporations and individuals both in Japan and from around the world. In the week following the earthquake, Second Harvest received contributions of 778 packages of food and nearly ¥30 million. Moreover, the Tokyo office has been inundated with requests from people eager to join in the relief efforts. Second Harvest regularly accepts volunteers for its food distribution activities, but this level of interest in volunteering is unprecedented.

“During this emergency, a lot of people want to do something. This is the first time so many people have volunteered,” says volunteer coordinator Megumi Takahara, turning briefly to greet the sixth volunteer of the morning.

Across the street in front of the warehouse, a group of around eight Japanese and non-Japanese volunteers unpack boxes filled with a hodgepodge of items: paper plates, baby diapers, instant ramen, towels and tinned sardines. Their task is to open each box, sort the items by category, and then seal and label the new packages. It’s still early, and more helpers are expected to arrive later.

Takahara asks that anyone interested in volunteering contact her via e-mail (in Japanese or English) three days in advance. In general, Second Harvest can only use about 30 volunteers per day. “It can be difficult to manage if people show up without letting us know. We want them to be able to do something meaningful here,” she explains.

They already have plenty of on-site volunteers to assist with the disaster relief project, but Takahara points out that people don’t have to come into the office to volunteer. They can get involved by holding food drives in their own communities and donating the supplies to Second Harvest, or by organizing independent fundraising events.

McJilton stresses the need for long-term commitment and encourages people to consider pacing their donations: “This is a long-term issue that’s not going to go away in two or three weeks. It’s a legitimate response to want to help people in need but there’s a capacity issue, particularly in Japan, where the nonprofit sector is so underdeveloped that throwing all this money at it is suddenly going to lead to inefficiency,” he says.

Before he’s able to finish describing the current conditions in Minamisoma, a group of volunteers from a newly formed independent aid group called Foreign Volunteers Japan rush into the office asking for boxes of food to take up north. They’d recently taken supplies to Ishinomaki, a stricken area in Miyagi, and had heard that people in Minamisoma were without food. The problem was that they had planned to take the goods to the same agency that had received deliveries from Second Harvest the day before. After several phone calls, they located a different distribution point outside of Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, that was in need of supplies, so McJilton sent them off with a truckload of donated food.

“I’m happy to give food to anyone who wants to take it (to Tohoku), but I have to make sure they’re not going to the same places we’ve covered, or to places that have enough food,” he says. “That would waste precious gas as well as double the efforts.”

Fuel shortages and infrastructure problems have resulted in a backlog of deliveries, and some food distribution centers are now running out of storage space. McJilton says Second Harvest Japan plans to use the funds they’ve received to lay the foundation for a more efficient distribution system to help those who, after moving from the evacuation centers this April, will continue to need assistance as the area recovers. They’re already working with organizations that belong to the national food-bank network they established last year and are seeking to expand their operations in Tohoku. McJilton mentions the possibility of creating food banks in Fukushima, Ibaraki and Tochigi prefectures.

“God forbid that anything like this will ever happen again, but if it were to, we could take some of the things we learned here and have some more things in place,” McJilton explains.

As is the case with all decisions in a disaster, a calm, measured approach to giving is best. The bottom line: Take the long view and hold on to those good intentions.

For more information about Second Harvest Japan, visit www.2hj.org.

How you can help

One way that you can contribute to the ongoing disaster relief effort is by organizing a food drive in your own community. Items collected can then be dropped off in person or sent via parcel delivery to Second Harvest, Japan, which will make sure that the supplies are delivered to people in need. Coordinator Megumi Takahashi offers the following tips on how to get started. An updated list of requested items can be found on their website:

Plan

* Create a committee to organize the food drive. * Set a target for how much food and other supplies your group will collect. * Approach businesses, community centers, or other public facilities about serving as drop-off points in your area. * Determine the length of the campaign.

Promote

* Schedule a kick-off event to raise awareness and enthusiasm. * Place posters and collection boxes in visible location.

What to collect

* Beverages and nonperishable food items such as uncooked rice, canned foods, retort-pouch foods (packaged curries, etc.), baby formula and baby food. Check the packages carefully and do not accept items that are past or close to the expiration dates. Remember it may take time for supplies to reach evacuees, so edibles that will last for a month or longer are best. * Hygiene and sanitary products such as baby and adult diapers, brand-new underwear, wet wipes, face masks, dry shampoos and towels. All packages must be unopened and unused. * Disposable plates, cups, and cutlery that can be used in soup kitchens. These, too, must be unused. * Portable gas stoves and gas cartridges in their original packaging.

What NOT to collect

* Food and drinks that have expired. * Items with no expiration date. * Items in glass containers, with the exception of baby food. * Opened bottles or food packages. * Used clothing or household goods.