Food banks are springing up in Japan as people become aware of the disconnect between food waste and the needs of the nation’s hidden poor.
Food banks supply items donated by individuals or companies to needy families such as single mothers and cash-strapped pensioners. The items are those that might otherwise be thrown away.
Last spring, a married couple in their 70s in Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi Prefecture, turned to the municipal government for help at a time when they were finding it hard to make ends meet. The wife’s pension, which was their only income, did not cover the rent and medical bills for the bedridden husband, and they were depleting their savings.
Applying for a public stipend for poor families was a possibility, but the snag was that the couple owned a car — a necessity for shopping, but an asset that would be classed as a luxury.
The municipal government introduced the couple to Food Bank Yamanashi, a nonprofit organization based in the city of Minami-Alps in the prefecture, and in May they received their first food from it — rice and seasonings.
Food Bank Yamanashi supports around 100 families with care packages tailored to their needs. For example, diapers and baby food are included for families with babies.
The effort takes many hours of work and depends heavily on its volunteers.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries says 40 organizations were engaged in food bank services in Japan in 2014.
The organizations, some of which receive support from municipalities and other public organizations, are struggling to secure funds, manpower and storage space and to find willing donor companies.
“The activity varies from region to region, so it is not necessarily that the same kind of assistance can be provided everywhere,” said Keiko Yoneyama, who heads Food Bank Yamanashi.
Food Bank Iwate, based in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, relies on individuals including farmers for 80 percent of its donations, as there are few food companies in the area.
While rice is available in relative abundance due to donations from farmers, Food Bank Iwate has a shortage of such items as canned foods.
One option is to swap items with organizations elsewhere — in urban areas, canned food is readily available while rice donations are scarce, for example. However, the transportation costs are the bottleneck, said Tomoyuki Abe, a senior official of the food bank.
In November, 11 organizations, including Food Bank Yamanashi, set up a national group of food banks to share know-how and assist newcomers entering the field.
Taeko Tanaka, 62, of Komae, Tokyo, heard of the concept in 2014 and set about establishing her own food bank. She has been receiving advice from Food Bank Yamanashi.
“At first, I didn’t even know how many people are struggling to get enough to eat,” Tanaka said.
Aided by tips from Food Bank Yamanashi, she assembled staff and started delivering food to around 10 families last summer. In February she will launch a nonprofit organization, Food Bank Komae.