Saturday 15 September 2018

Poverty, Food Insecurity, and Food Loss: Introducing a Japanese Food Bank

click to preview
When people think of Japan, they often think of a wealthy country with amazing food; indeed, Tokyo is the most Michelin starred city in the world (boasting 314 stars, including twelve three-star restaurants). There is another side to the story though: growing income inequality - Japan is increasingly a kakusa-shakai ("gap-society"). Japan's poverty rate is well above the OECD average with slightly less than 1 in 6 Japanese living below the poverty line. For one-parent families this becomes an astonishing 1 in 2 (child poverty in particular has become a real talking point in recent years). This is mainly due to a sharp rise in non-regular workers (hi-seishain =非正社員), a new "underclass" without job-security or the perks enjoyed by full-time workers who scrape by on the minimum wage.

This is not a reality that Japanese politicians want to face. When challenged in the Diet a couple of years ago, Abe insisted that "there is no way Japan is in poverty." More recently, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said that "there are no homes in Japan where people go hungry." But a look at the newly released UN annual "State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World" report tells us that this is not so. The report estimates the prevalence of under-nourishment in Japan at (less than) 2.5% with up to 600,000 people experiencing severe food insecurity.

The first food bank in Japan, in Asakusa-bashi Tokyo, was set up in 2002 and is called Second Harvest (the old name for the US Feeding America NPO). With a slogan of "turning mottainai (waste) into arigato (thanks)", Second Harvest receives donations from manufacturers, farmers, retailers, and individuals and distributes them to welfare agencies, orphanages, shelters, homeless, and individuals. The goal is "food for all people" (subete no hito ni, tabemono o =すべての人に、食べ物を). According to the homepage, they delivered 3,152 tons of food in 2012 and helped companies save ¥310 million in disposal costs.

The above paragraph only hints at the huge problem of food loss (shokuhin rosu =食品ロス) in Japan: in 2015 6.46 million tons of food in edible condition was thrown away (to put  this figure in perspective, this was about double the total food aid in the whole world!). A big reason for these figures in Japan is the so-called "one-third rule", an unwritten rule amongst producers and sellers. For example, if the expiration or "use-by" date (shōhi-kigen =消費期限) of a product is 30 days, companies must deliver the food to shops within 10 days or one-third (in contrast, in Britain delivery has to be within three-quarters of the sell-by-date period). Moreover, the rule of thumb for shops is to sell the product within two-thirds of the expiration date (this is the sell-by-date also known as the "best-before" date - shōmi kigen =賞味期限). What this means in practice is that shops will not accept goods delivered after the "one-third" window and that shops will return or dispose of any products that have passed the sell-by-date - despite the fact that they are perfectly edible. In many ways, this is the dark-side of Japan's obsession with cleanliness, hygiene, and perfect service - Japanese consumers can be very picky. Moreover, they never ask for a doggy-bag in a restaurant!