Kenichi Narita is a man with a question: How can Japan eradicate food waste?

When Narita was still in high school, he was diagnosed with cancer, and he says that the kindness and warmth shown to him in the hospital helped him pull through. While recovering, he decided he would dedicate his life to supporting those in need, and food — making it, serving it, delivering it — became the main vehicle for him to “pay it back.”

Subsequent work as a cook and restaurant owner also showed him the other side of the coin — how much food we routinely waste.

Despite a wide understanding and appreciation for the concept of mottainai (literally, “what a waste”), Japan throws away just over 6 million tons of edible food per year. As Narita became more involved in food-sharing efforts, he traveled widely in his native Okayama Prefecture, where he operates a restaurant.

Narita also took to the internet to research how countries overseas are dealing with food waste, which is where he first came across the concept of community fridges. Through his research he came upon Hubbub, an environmental charity, which eventually led him to London, England, and Dundee, Scotland, where he learned more about these projects.

Food support: Kenichi Narita stands in front of the recently opened Kitanagase Community Fridge in Okayama, the first such community fridge in Japan. | COURTESY OF KENICHI NARITA
Food support: Kenichi Narita stands in front of the recently opened Kitanagase Community Fridge in Okayama, the first such community fridge in Japan. | COURTESY OF KENICHI NARITA

As the name suggests, community fridges are publicly located fridges or pantries where people can go to get nutritious food for free, with no questions asked. Unlike traditional food banks, anyone can donate or take food out of the fridge, helping reduce food inequality and stigma around charity. Today, Hubbub runs approximately 100 community fridges across the U.K.

As Tessa Tricks, senior creative partner at Hubbub explains, the community fridge network in the U.K. fulfills a few different but related needs. They are a source of nutritious food; they help to reduce food waste and social isolation; and they “(connect) people with new food and recipes.”

“Their impact is quite broad, and we categorically come from a place where we don’t think food waste is the solution to food poverty, or vice versa,” Tricks says. “For us, (community fridges) are very much about seeing what they can do to foster a sense of sharing within a community.”

Japan’s first community fridge opened on Nov. 20 in the Kitanagase area of the city of Okayama. Narita was instrumental in helping the organizer, Kitanagase Area Management, take the community fridge from a mere concept to a concrete program serving the community. Currently, local businesses, farmers and households donate food and other nonperishable household goods.

“At the moment we have items such as tofu, instant noodles, some frozen food, juice and snacks,” Narita says. “And today we got a delivery of lettuce.”

Thanks to the connections Narita forged through his other venture, Foodsharing Japan, which sees him traveling throughout Okayama delivering food parcels and meals to children’s cafeterias and other welfare organizations, producers — such as tofu makers — will often contact him and donate batches of food, which he then brings to the community fridge.

“One of the biggest differences between the U.K. and Japan is the supermarket,” Narita says, explaining that in Britain the supermarkets give food to community fridges whereas in Japan, this currently does not happen.

To tailor the community fridge’s programming for Japan, Kitanagase Area Management and Narita made a few changes to Hubbub’s model. Unlike the community fridges in the U.K., the Kitanagase Community Fridge, which is located in a former real estate office, is only open to low-income families. Registered users can gain access 24 hours a day via a smartphone app, which unlocks the facility.

Narita believes that the timing of the Kitanagase fridge’s opening is fortunate, since the coronavirus has wrecked the economy and “there are more people in need of a service like this.” He also thinks the global health pandemic helped increase locals’ willingness to host a community fridge.

“I want to set up more and more community fridges similar to the ones in the U.K. across Japan,” Narita says. “That’s the best way (to ensure) everyone can (benefit) from it.”

For more information, visit communityfridge.jp.

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