It’s 11:30 a.m. on a clear Saturday morning and around 10 volunteers are packing up the last of the food that Second Harvest Japan plans to distribute that afternoon.

They’re gathered at the food bank’s central kitchen in Tokyo’s Taito Ward, in a room stuffed with boxes of donated food products. The walls are graffitied with the names of donors — from banks and brand names to individuals — giving the place the kind of vibe you’d get from a Shibuya live house.

Smack dab in the center of the room is a table covered in insulated boxes containing yogurt, milk, nattō (fermented soy beans), sausages and ready-to-bake pizzas. Second Harvest Japan CEO and founder Charles McJilton pulls out a serving of steak, adding that someone is in for a treat.

Extra support: Second Harvest Japan CEO Charles McJilton says that there are fewer people living on the streets in Tokyo, but that poverty takes forms that are not as visible. Developing a food safety net could help in that regard.
Extra support: Second Harvest Japan CEO Charles McJilton says that there are fewer people living on the streets in Tokyo, but that poverty takes forms that are not as visible. Developing a food safety net could help in that regard. | COURTESY OF SECOND HARVEST JAPAN

“A lot of people don’t know how few locations there are to pick up food,” McJilton tells The Japan Times the day before while on a delivery. “In New York City there are 1,100 locations where you can pick up emergency food. San Francisco has 250, Hong Kong has 160 and here in Tokyo there are 10.”

Second Harvest Japan hopes to ease the burden of people in need across the country. Since its founding in 2002, the nonprofit has prepared and gathered food with assistance from a variety of community groups, corporate donors and religious groups.

“Our role is to create locations where people can pick up that food,” McJilton says. Second Harvest Japan also engages in other relief efforts, which include dispatching several trucks full of aid to areas affected by the storms that struck Hiroshima earlier this year.

On Dec. 3, Second Harvest Japan will host a benefit concert at Ebisu-area pub What The Dickens. Running from 7 till 11 p.m., the event features Mike de Jong’s band Instant Karma (see accompanying story) playing a set among other acts. It’s the second annual edition of the show, which McJilton says was a success in 2017.

But catching some live music and donating money is only one way to support your fellow citizens.

McJilton moved to Japan in 1991 as a foreign exchange student. While residing in Tokyo’s Sanya district, he decided to live alongside the neighborhood’s homeless for 15 months in order to better understand their situation. He founded the NPO a few years later.

“We didn’t have a warehouse, we didn’t have a place to store food, so whatever we took out that day had to be delivered that day,” McJilton says about Second Harvest Japan’s early years. “But, just like 2002, I’m out on the road right now delivering food.”

The operation has grown significantly in that time, gathering tons of food every year and extending its reach across the archipelago. Second Harvest Japan isn’t stopping there.

“Our goal is to create a food safety net by 2020 that would support 100,000 people in Tokyo,” McJilton says. “That’s a really small step forward when you consider that 2 million people live under the poverty line in Tokyo alone.”

One of the things McJilton says he wants to emphasize the most is that poverty in Tokyo isn’t just about homelessness.

“The number of people living on the streets has dropped dramatically over the past 10 years. Now, there are probably fewer than 1,500 people who live on the streets.”

But he thinks this aspect of poverty is disproportionately covered in the media, which results in those living just below the poverty line being overlooked.

“We have a crazy amount of food available,” McJilton says. “But imagine a funnel, where the top is all full of food, but the pipe below is very narrow. That’s the challenge we face.”

The issue is distribution and making sure the people who need the food can actually get it.

“So what can you do? If you go to a church, ask your church, ‘Why aren’t we hosting a pantry?’ If you know of an NPO, ask them. If you don’t belong to either of those, call your local government and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you distribute food?'”

Stocked up: Second Harvest Japan hands out food to people in Tokyo
Stocked up: Second Harvest Japan hands out food to people in Tokyo’s Ueno area. | COURTESY OF SECOND HARVEST JAPAN

McJilton emphasizes the importance of reaching out to the organizations that could host spaces where people in need could pick up food. Second Harvest Japan, after all, has no shortage of that.

Volunteering more directly with Second Harvest Japan is another option. On the Saturday at the central kitchen, around 10 people from different cultural backgrounds are helping to make and fill boxes with food. Most of the work is done in easy-to-understand Japanese, but the odd English instruction finds its way into the conversation. McJilton says there are also opportunities to help out in the kitchen and with driving the food to wherever it will be distributed.

Second Harvest Japan has made volunteering a relatively easy process, and often runs out of space to accommodate all those looking to help. McJilton says if you’ve tried the other routes, consider simply visiting the organization’s website, check out the list of companies who are helping out with donations, and contact them to let them know you appreciate the support they are providing. That encourages them to continue opening their coffers for good causes.

Whichever way you try to help, McJilton stresses that it’s a good opportunity to foster community in Japan.

The food distribution network “is your thing — like it would be your library, your police station, your hospital. This is yours, your community asset,” McJilton says. “When you engage in the community, whether working with us or other groups, you really get a sense of ownership that you belong. You aren’t just a foreigner — this is where you live. That’s a powerful feeling.”

Second Harvest Japan Food Bank Benefit takes place at What the Dickens in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Dec. 3 (7-11 p.m.). Admission is free but donations are encouraged. For more information, visit www.2hj.org or www.whatthedickens.jp.

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