Tokyo’s first food bank mobilizes for earthquake and tsunami victims

Tokyo’s first food bank mobilizes for earthquake and tsunami victims

Second Harvest Japan taps into its network to send food and relief supplies to Tohoku
Earthquake Survivors
A girl watches her brother play beside debris in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture.

Second Harvest Japan is a food bank established in 2000 that usually works to serve the capital’s food-insecure. Its charitable activities include running a Saturday soup kitchen in Ueno Park and delivering food to orphanages, elder care facilities, migrant workers, and other under-represented people in the greater Tokyo area.

Now, in the wake of the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, Second Harvest Japan (2HJ) is marshaling teams of volunteers to sort and distribute donations that are pouring in from all over the country and the world.

With several four-ton trucks heading to Sendai and other northern cities every day, the shift into top gear has so far been an unqualified success.

Almost three weeks after the quake, 2HJ has made 20 trips distributing upward of 80 tons of food, blankets, diapers, gas and other essentials to distribution centers and individual shelters.

2HJ staff distributing supplies in Ishinomaki.2HJ staff distributing supplies in Ishinomaki.

Staff and volunteers from 2HJ have visited 200 locations, including two shelters in the town of Minami Souma in Fukushima Prefecture, which sits inside the evacuation zone surrounding the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.

That particular journey, however, was strictly voluntary. “People are concerned,” says Charles McJilton, 2HJ’s executive director. “We had to ask -- do we feel comfortable? It’s important that we’re not forcing the staff to do anything they don’t want to.”

The after-effects of March 11 are, of course, causing difficulties for people besides those still in shelters. Some agencies, such as hospitals and elder care facilities, were not directly hit by the tsunami, but are still suffering from a lack of supplies.

Boxes of donations at the 2HJ Tokyo office.Boxes of donations at the 2HJ Tokyo office.

Many people's homes -- though they may be damaged -- are still standing. People in these communities are working together to make private shelters that meet a clear need, but which often fall outside the scope of government support. Again, that’s where 2HJ comes in.

As of the end of March, some broader needs have been largely met. Items like blankets, coats, and underwear have been sufficiently provided to evacuees, and the organization plans to slow delivery of supplies like this shortly.

From the beginning of April, the group plans to focus instead on consumables, including food, water and diapers.

Water is especially scarce, says Akiko Kikuchi, a 2HJ staffer. “Because people in Tokyo and elsewhere are buying all the water, there just isn't enough to go round,” she explains. A shipment of fresh water from Korea is planned in the next few days to address the problem. 

In addition to corporate donations, about 3,000 boxes have come from private donors, arriving from all over Japan and as far off as France and the Maldives.

Unpaid helpers, too, have been streaming in. “The number of volunteers per day has been about 30 or 40 people -- 10 times the usual level,” says Kikuchi.

Volunteers unpack a sea of boxes.Volunteers unpack a sea of boxes.

After arriving at the Tokyo office, the boxes are sorted into different categories, such as coffee and tea, canned goods, ready-to-eat food, baby supplies, rice, underwear and snacks.

Private donations alone have totaled 20 to 30 tons -- enough to fill the Second Harvest trucks several times over. 

Though the goal is to help get communities in Tohoku up and running and self-sufficient as soon as possible, relief efforts and rebuilding will probably continue, McJilton says, for at least six to nine months.

An unexpected challenge that has come to light is the lack of partnerships between different agencies.

2HJ is already working with a national food bank network and other non-profits to assess needs, but hopes to develop more partners to be able to effectively distribute help where it is needed.

McJilton explains: “I ask myself -- is there a need and is there a partner? We all need to work together.”

Naturally, the regular work of the Second Harvesters continues -- as well as organizing the Tohoku aid, the group is still carrying on with its usual activities, including distributing supplies to Tokyo families and running a soup kitchen serving homeless people in Ueno Park.

On the morning after the earthquake, according to the Second Harvest disaster relief blog, “While fewer volunteers turned up due to the cancellation of train services in Tokyo, the number of homeless people lined up in the soup kitchen remained the same.”

Find out more about Second Harvest Japan on its website and keep up to date with the aid drive through Twitter.

Second Harvest Japan, Mizuta Bldg. 1F, 4-5-1 Asakusabashi, Taito-ku, Tokyo-to. Tel +81 (0) 3 3838 3827
Selena Hoy lives in Tokyo. She likes thunderstorms.
Read more about Selena Hoy
CNN Partner Hotels