Second Harvest: Creating a food safety net in Japan

Millions of tonnes of edible food are discarded each year in Japan. Second Harvest is working towards making sure this food reaches those in need.

by Julia Migné

Second Harvest INKLINE
Charles E. McJilton, founder and CEO of Second Harvest Japan. © Second Harvest Japan

Sixteen point one percent of Japanese live below the poverty line according to the CIA World Fact Book. This means that 1 in 6 people live in Japan without food security. At the same time, in 2010 the country discarded a total of 18 million tonnes of food among which five to eight million tonnes were considered to be edible food when thrown away. This amount equalled to the amount of the country’s annual rice production!

Out of the five to eight million tonnes of edible food discarded each year, three to four millions could be redistributed by food banks and could make their ways to reach the 20 million Japanese in need. For the past 15 years, that’s exactly the goal that Second Harvest Japan set for itself: “to match surplus food with unmet needs to increase food security in Japan”.

© Second Harvest Japan

The independent non-profit, incorporated in 2002, was the very first food bank in the country. However, Second Harvest quickly faced a major challenge: “70% of Japanese distrust NGOs,” explains Charles E. McJilton, founder and CEO. “NGOs have a low standing within Japanese society so that creates problems for funding and it creates problems for engaging people within the community who might need the assistance.”

One way to tackle this deep distrust was to clearly define the company’s core values and the way it should brand itself. One key feature for Charles was to make it clear that his goal was not to help people or to be a kind of hero.

I think when people focus on helping other people they start thinking that there is something wrong with the other person. They start thinking that they are not good as they are and that they should be in some different state,” says Charles.

“And so then unintentionally we project our own ideas of what is good upon a person instead of focussing on what service we can provide that the other person may be able to use,” he added.

 Another way Second Harvest tackled that popular distrust was by framing itself as a public asset more than a charity. The idea was to have people seeing it as a public asset, like a school or a library, to have local communities feeling that the community food bank was actually theirs.  

15 years after its incorporation, the company now employs 12 full-time staff members and 13 part-time. Second Harvest’s force and power also resides within its huge number of volunteers! 110 volunteers come to help from Monday to Saturday and last year a total of 33,000 hours where donated to the company by various Japanese residents.

Determined to provide those in need with food, Second Harvest provided 13,060 packages of food to disaster victims in 2012. In a day to day basis, however, the way the organisation operates include four main areas: the Harvest Kitchen, the Harvest Pantry, the Food Banking and the Advocacy and Development.

Started in 2003, the Harvest Kitchen operates four days a week and the team delivers meals to a range of people  and agencies. With the Harvest Pantry, the goal is to provide direct assistance to households.

While these two areas provide a service directly to customers, the Food Bank then provides a service to other businesses. Large amount of food are collected and then delivered to welfare agencies. “The first two are more B2C [business to consumer] where we are dealing with the users directly whereas the food bank is B2B [business to business] where we are acting as a wholesaler to collect and redistribute food,” explains Charles. 

Then comes the Advocacy and Development side of Second Harvest which is to promote the development of food banking in Japan and help create a food safety net for people in need.

Our goal is by 2020 to create a food safety net so that at least a 100,000 people can be served.”

Our goal is by 2020 to create a food safety net in Tokyo so that at least a 100,000 people can be served,” says Charles. “And that will be done through a combination of creating different avenues and mechanisms to provide food to people that might need it and also to keep on pushing those stakeholders to get involved.”

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Four days a week meals are cooked for people in need in the Harvest Kitchen. © Second Harvest Japan

The average Japanese household according to Charles donates $35 per year, an incredibly less amount compared to the $2,000 donated by households in his home country, the US. “It’s not very likely that we will see a dramatic increase in capacity for our organisation.” 

So, Second Harvest is now looking at alternative ways to reach those 16% of Japanese who desperately need food. Two models have particularly caught Charles’ attention: the Swiss Caritas Markt and the American Urban Recipe.

Caritas Markt has been around for about twenty years and is basically a store where people in need can buy food at a highly discounted price. “The benefit for the recipients is that it’s not charity in a traditional sense,” explains Charles. “People are using their own funds to be able to access the food.”

That’s also an interesting way for the organisation to be sustainable. By producing a source of income, they can rely less on external funds. 

Urban Recipe on the other side has a completely different model and defines itself as a food coop. “Groups of up to fifty families work together to share food,” says Charles.

“Food is brought to a church or another location and the members themselves unload the truck, separate the food, run a meeting and at the end the food is distributed among the families. ” This model allows families to be actively engaged in the process and create a strong sense of community. 


The goal now is to test both of these models in Japan and see which takes off best. “We already started doing some ground work on the Caritas Markt model beginning back in 2012,” concludes Charles.



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