Hunger and poverty can be abstract notions even if we sympathise with people in need. But moved by what he saw of how the poor coped while he was a visiting student in Tokyo, Charles McJilton undertook what some might regard as a radical experiment to understand their predicament. He spent 15 months living in a cardboard house among its homeless. The American emerged from that life in April 1998 with an entirely changed outlook.
"I no longer felt motivated to 'help' people [or 'save the world']. Instead of feeling guilty about the world's problems, I am responding to [them]," he says.
The experience spurred him to set up Second Harvest Japan (2HJ), in 2002, the first food bank to be incorporated in the country.
It has worked so well that McJilton set up Second Harvest Asia (2HA) two years ago to promote food banking in the region. The organisation aims to achieve that by sharing information and creating opportunities for food banks to meet. For example, a regional forum was organised earlier this month in collaboration with the Hong Kong Council of Social Service.
"Food banks are unique. They have one foot in the for-profit sector because they deal with food companies and distributors. They help donors save money and do good. [Their] other foot is in the non-profit sector providing a service to those in need," he says.
Food banks in Asia face obstacles such as insufficient funding and the lack of infrastructure to distribute food, including warehouses and know-how, but governments can help in an important way.
"The government has information about people in need. [It] can introduce them to the local food banks for assistance and to work with the food banks to create a food safety net," says McJilton. "We look at food banks as a public utility [like] police, hospitals and libraries, something you can access if you have a need."