Reducing Food Loss and Waste: A Look at Food Bank Kanagawa

Food and Drink Society Economy Lifestyle Environment

Food Bank Kanagawa has seen demand for its services swell as the pandemic and global economic factors put pressure on household budgets. Working with manufacturers and local citizens, it is helping to cut food loss and waste by redirecting Japan’s bounty of salvaged food to those in need.

Growing Need

Food Bank Kanagawa is on the front lines of reducing food loss and waste by helping those in need. Based in Yokohama’s Kanazawa Ward, the nonprofit was established in 2018 through a partnership of 12 organizations including consumer-cooperative-affiliated grocery delivery services, the prefectural branch of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, and the Yokohama YMCA. Working with food manufacturers and local citizens, it strives to salvage wholesome, edible surplus food and redirect it to disadvantaged residents.

Food Bank Kanagawa

In its first year, the food bank recovered 46 tons of food, a drop in the bucket compared to the amount Japan wastes annually. It steadily increased this number, with an unexpected boost coming from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Society going into lockdown produced a glut of food items, everything from single-serve milk drink boxes for school lunches to high-end ingredients used at restaurants or hotel kitchens. Amid this surplus, Food Bank Kanagawa in 2022 salvaged 350 tons of food, seven times what it recovered in its first year of operation.

Food Bank Kanagawa director Fujita Makoto.
Food Bank Kanagawa director Fujita Makoto.

However, Food Bank Kanagawa’s director Fujita Makoto insists that the amount is still nowhere close to being enough. “We can’t keep up with ballooning demand,” he declares. Fujita explains that the three years of the pandemic have pushed more vulnerable people into poverty, particularly part-time and irregular workers, who have seen their incomes shrink as businesses scaled back their operations. Inflation has added to the dilemma, with a steady rise in prices for daily necessities since 2022 forcing more and more people to turn to the food bank for help.

Fujita points out that demand for rice, a staple of the Japanese diet, has increased sharply. In 2022, food companies and households donated 120 tons of the grain, which although a significant amount was still below what the food bank needed. To make up the shortfall, the organization had to dig into its own coffers, spending more than half of the ¥20 million in financial support received from governmental and other sources to procure rice and other food items.

Perfectly Good Food

The food bank provides a wide array of food for users, including canned and ready-made goods, seasonings, and processed foods like sweets and snacks. However, it typically avoids handling uncooked meat and seafood, which spoil easily, and raw vegetables, with the exception of cabbage. Fujita recognizes that this policy presents an added challenge to households relying on the food bank, particularly those with children, to plan well-balanced meals. To address the issue, the food bank has started offering frozen side dishes, a move that has been met with enthusiasm.

Japan boasts a sizable frozen foods market, with manufacturers frequently processing items at factories in countries like China, Thailand, and Vietnam and then shipping the finished products to Japan. Prior to coming to the food bank, Fujita worked at food delivery service Yū Co-op. In 2017, he learned from executives of the company, which is now a corporate partner of the food bank, that the industry faced a serious dilemma of food waste. The problem stemmed in part from the unwillingness of domestic shipping firms to transport anything that was not in perfect condition. For instance, companies would flatly refuse to accept any box that had been opened by a customs officer to inspect one of the items, even if the remaining content was undisturbed, leaving manufacturers no recourse but to declare the whole lot not fit for sale. Fujita labels such wastefulness as “unbelievable.”

Opening a freezer at the food bank reveals stacks of boxes of frozen deep-fried chicken pieces sent to the organization. Fujita points out a small tear in one box and explains that even minor damage of this sort leads to rejection.

Boxes of frozen foods deemed unsuitable for sale due to minor damage.
Boxes of frozen foods deemed unsuitable for sale due to minor damage.

Outside, a bundle of four boxes of frozen broccoli sits alongside other items in a freezer truck. Banded together with a plastic, the bundle of boxes were pulled aside by the manufacturer due to damage to just one in the set.

Only the bottom box of the four-box set of frozen broccoli is damaged, but all were rejected.
Only the bottom box of the four-box set of frozen broccoli is damaged, but all were rejected.

According to a person in the industry, such cases are common as freight carriers often refuse to accept damaged boxes from manufacturers out of concern that they will be blamed and expected to pay compensation if supermarkets reject items. Although justifiable from a business standpoint, such decisions also result in food loss.

Over Caution

There are countless ways a box can be damaged during transport, most of which are as harmless as they are unavoidable. Fujita explains that food companies do not see minor damage as an issue but are at the mercy of the strict standards demanded by vendors. He says the situation stems from a 2008 incident in which several people in Japan fell ill after eating Chinese-made frozen gyōza contaminated with insecticide. A worker at the plant in China where the dumplings were made administered the toxic chemical by puncturing the packaging with a syringe. Since then, retailers have taken a hard stance toward boxes showing damage, no matter how minor.

Fujita acknowledges the seriousness of the incident and retailers’ caution, although he wonders if the industry is taking things too far. “Food companies thoroughly check the safety of their products,” he explains. “We’re concerned about the safety of what we offer users as well, but something as mundane as crinkled cardboard shouldn’t really be an issue.”

The food bank has had to expand its infrastructure to accommodate the increase in frozen foods, which need to be kept at minus 18º Celsius. Relying on grants from the government and elsewhere, it purchased a freezer truck to pick up and transport items and invested in 29 freezers to store what it receives.

A food bank worker unloads items from a freezer truck.
A food bank worker unloads items from a freezer truck.

Partnering with Companies

The cooperation of major donors like food companies is crucial to the food bank keeping up with the demand of its users. Manufacturers that started partnering with Food Bank Kanagawa in 2022 include Maruha Nichiro, a seafood firm that donates boxes of frozen foods damaged in transit, and Yamazaki Baking, a bread maker that contributes around 100 loaves a day. Fujita has high expectations that other manufacturers will follow their examples and support the organization’s efforts.

Maruha Nichiro’s support of the food bank is part of its medium-term management goal of cutting food loss by half over a 10-year period to 2030. Shimura Haruka of the firm’s corporate planning department sustainability group says that tackling food loss is of mounting importance from a social and environmental perspective, while also making sense from a business standpoint. “Investors are putting greater weight on initiatives for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals and similar objectives,” she says. “This dovetails nicely with the company’s efforts to fight waste.”

Fujita sees fostering partnerships with food companies as a “win-win situation” for everyone involved. Shimura echoes this sentiment, saying that donating items deemed unsuitable for sale plays an important role in reducing food loss. However, she stresses that to achieve a broader solution to the issue, the government must work with manufacturers, distributors, and retailers to hash out a consensus on the handling of damaged goods, including allowing salvageable items to be sold.

Sources of Food Loss in Japan

Community Support

Along with contributions from manufacturers, Food Bank Kanagawa relies on donations from households in the community. To increase understanding of its activities, it invites people to volunteer at its warehouse sorting donated items. Such hands-on experiences help raise interest in donating by demonstrating to participants the wide variety of items collected. For instance, in February of this year the warehouse was inundated with a vast array of items donated during a recent food drive.

Households are a major source of food loss in Japan. Making more people aware of food banks will help reduce the amount of items that go to waste by giving individuals a way to salvage unused but still wholesome foodstuffs from their pantries.

Volunteers sort food items by their use-by dates.
Volunteers sort food items by their use-by dates.

Not all items donated by households can be used. Closer inspection of a can of stewed chicken (left) and bag of mini biscuits reveals that they are for pet use.
Not all items donated by households can be used. Closer inspection of a can of stewed chicken (left) and bag of mini biscuits reveals that they are for pet use.

Ōhara Etsuko, in her book Fūdo banku to iu chōsen (The Challenges Taken On by Food Banks), details the establishment of the first food bank in the US state of Arizona in 1967. Getting its start in religious charitable activities, the movement spread rapidly across the country.

By comparison, food banks are new to Japan, the first being established in 2002. Although their numbers have increased, more needs to be done to raise public awareness of their activities and what kind of items can be donated. For instance, Food Bank Kanagawa does not accept donations directly from the public but rather via collection points set up by the prefectural government at grocery stores and co-ops. Making information like the location of drop-off sites more widely available will increase the number of households donating to food banks, helping those in need while reducing food waste.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Boxes of frozen fried chicken at Food Bank Kanagawa that were deemed unsalable due to slight damage to the exterior packaging. All photos by the author, unless otherwise noted.)

food poverty inflation COVID-19 food bank