As job losses surge due to the pandemic, demand for food handouts has skyrocketed in Japan
* Pandemic highlights often-overlooked poverty in Japan
* Government releases stockpiled rice to charities for first time
* Calls to ease rules over distributing rice to the needy
By Chang-Ran Kim and Izumi Nakagawa
TOKYO, Feb 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Ayumi lost her part-time job at a restaurant last summer, she ended up relying on rice and pre-packaged fare delivered once a month by a food bank to her college campus in Tokyo.
"I cut my meals to once a day, in mid-afternoon," the 22-year-old said. "Many friends were in the same boat – they worked at eateries that were hit because of the coronavirus."
As job losses surge due to the pandemic, demand for food handouts has skyrocketed in Japan, prompting the government to release stockpiled rice to charities for the first time last May. Another expanded programme started this month.
The pandemic has highlighted often-overlooked poverty in Japan, which boasts the world's third largest economy but where the poverty rate stands at 15.7%, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
On top of this, the average number of available jobs per applicant saw its biggest decline in 45 years in 2020, while the average jobless rate rose for the first time in 11 years.
But the move by the government to release stockpiled rice to charities comes with the requirement that it be used for children, which campaigners fear limits the impact and they are calling for the rules to be eased.
"We're bound by the law to use the stockpile only in the event of a supply shortage in the market, or for the purpose of 'food education'. We can't use it for welfare," said an official for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).
"This is the extent of what we can do."
Japan adopted a policy of keeping an emergency stockpile of rice shortly after a bad harvest in 1993 caused a critical shortage of the national staple.
"FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS"
A rolling stock of about 1 million tonnes is maintained in warehouses around the country, with older rice sold as feed. Japan consumes about 8.5 million tonnes of rice annually, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), making it the world's ninth largest consumer.
Food banks have lobbied the government for years to release some of the rice to them, but legal restrictions regarding the stockpile made that impossible.
The government does provide some stockpiled rice to public schools for free, but this is deemed 'food education' - teaching children about the importance of rice to Japanese culture.
But when the pandemic forced most schools in Japan to close last spring, operators of cafeterias providing free food for children, known as "kodomo shokudo", managed to convince the government to supply free rice from the stockpile, arguing that many children were going hungry without their school lunches.
"As long as children were the end-user, we figured it could be considered 'food education'," the MAFF official said.
It was deemed a significant step symbolically but the impact was limited because the government capped the release at 60 kg per charity per year, and said the rice had to be cooked, partly to prevent abuse through re-sale.
The result was that less than 10 tonnes were taken up.
This month an expanded initiative designed for a relatively new type of charity that delivers food to poor families removed the requirement for the rice to be cooked but kept a limit of 300 kg per year per organisation.
Charles McJilton, founder and CEO of Second Harvest Japan, the country's biggest food bank, said 300 kgs of rice would "last us 30 minutes" - with estimates that this was about a 60th of what large food banks distribute each year.
"300 kg is an insult to a nation that has so much rice available and 20 million people living below the poverty line," McJilton told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"People are falling through the cracks. If it's the law, change the law."
In the United States and some European nations, governments actively support food banks through various programmes.
But in Japan, the MAFF is responsible for "the promotion of agriculture, forestry and fishery" with neither the charge nor budget to address hunger, the ministry official said.
COVID-19 has predictably made things worse, with demand for food handouts more than doubling from pre-pandemic levels in Japan where receiving welfare carries a strong social stigma that stops many people from accessing these benefits.
About 2 million of the 126 million population live on welfare - one tenth of those living below the poverty line.
Japan's capital, Tokyo, with a population of 14 million has about 40 food pantries where individuals can pick up food - compared with Hong Kong’s 200 food pantries for half the number of people, according to Second Harvest Japan.
"The government's latest initiative is one step forward," said Hiroaki Yoneyama, general secretary of national council Food Bank All Japan.
"But big food banks distribute 20 tonnes (18,144 kgs) of rice a year, so the quantity is rather small."
As supplies from corporate donors dwindle in a suffering economy, food banks have been left struggling to provide a safety net for the poor, elderly, day labourers, and desperate college students like Ayumi.
"For me, the most heart-rending thing is knowing that we have resources available out there," said McJilton.
(Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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