Pandemic puts pressure on Japan to open up rice stockpile to charities

Reuters -- Feb 18
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.

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.

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.

- Reuters