Food & Drink | Food Sustainability in Japan

Turning the table on global food inequality

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

When it comes to food and nutrition, we live in a world of extremes.

The United Nations estimates that about 815 million people are undernourished, with over 155 million children under the age of 5 suffering from stunted growth. Asia, by far the most populous continent, is also the home to most of the world’s hungriest people.

On the other hand, obesity as a “lifestyle disease” has nearly tripled since the mid-1970s. The World Health Organization estimates that of the 1.9 billion adults who are overweight, 650 million are obese — a condition in which a person’s weight is considered a danger to their health.

But hunger and obesity are preventable.

Masa Kogure, a former consultant with McKinsey & Company until 2005, left the firm to start Table For Two, a nonprofit that aims to tackle these two contrasting global issues concurrently.

Kogure, 46, says that the aim of Table For Two “is to solve inequality by introducing a very simple but powerful business model.”

That model is indeed simple: Table For Two partners with corporations such as Toyota and Panasonic and hundreds of others across Japan to provide healthy meal options.

From each purchase of a meal, ¥20 is contributed to Table For Two’s school meal programs, which operate in countries such as Tanzania, Rwanda and Myanmar. Total donations in 2017 amounted to ¥240,000,000 and the organization has served 62,294,000 school meals since its inception.

“The idea is to flatten out the calorie imbalance between developed and developing countries,” Kogure says.

Kogure explains that because of the difference in purchasing power, Table For Two is able to provide a nutritious meal in developing countries for much lower prices.

“This actually incentivizes children to come back to school, which in turn helps with education and in tackling the vicious cycle of poverty,” he adds.

Kogure established Table For Two in 2007. He had spent a decade working for corporate Japan, but took time out to reevaluate what he wanted to do, and how best he could use his skills “besides making money for corporations.”

His focus on food inequality and nutrition came about by accident, but Kogure says that while he wasn’t an expert he thought he could make a positive contribution to the field.

His timing was fortuitous: shortly after Table For Two launched, Japan implemented a nationwide health screening and intervention program under the “Metabo” law that targets high blood pressure, high cholesterol and excess body fat. This spurred public interest in healthy eating.

While Japan has one of the lowest rates of obesity in the world, Kogure points out that the country’s diet has changed significantly over recent decades, to the point that meat now forms a bigger part of the diet than fish.

When providing school meals in Kenya or Ethiopia, Table For Two works in conjunction with local partners and tries when possible to coordinate with local farmers to source ingredients.

This isn’t always possible, Kogure says, owing to factors such as weather and the availability of farming equipment: “Productivity is improving, but it’s unpredictable.”

Since its inception, Table For Two has also established independent affiliate organizations in Germany and the U.S., both of which operate under similar models, partnering with companies and corporations to offer healthy meals and raise money for their nutrition programs in developing countries.

The programs in these countries go even further than the Japanese original, also promoting food education and teaching people the basics of food preparation.

It makes perfect sense to Kogure. “Eating healthy is kind of like investment in yourself,” he says.

For more information on Table For Two’s programs, visit jp.tablefor2.org.