We spent last week in Tokyo's Nakano district. The streets are lovely, narrow and full of life; everybody walks. There are hundreds of little restaurants, bars, and delis minutes away. Our neighbors love eating out, and between sightseeing and interviews, we've enjoyed doing our best to fit in, including eating local takes on curry, salads, breads.
Fusion cuisines are great, but it's not just recipes being imported: over 60% of Japan's food is imported from overseas, a huge problem, both for environmental and food security reasons.
We hit Green Drinks Tokyo, a monthly mixer for folks interested in all things bright green. About sixty young people crowded into an event space to hear speakers talk about "Agriculture 2.0," projects connecting urban dwellers with healthy local food, while supporting farmers and educating consumers.
We heard from Noryoku, a Web 2.0 take on community-supported agriculture. Individuals rent small plots of land planted with one of twelve varieties of rice on participating organic farms; your farmer mails you your harvest. Rent's about $550 per year, and harvests average 40 kg (88 pounds) annually. Farmers get steady income, while renters get good food and a connection to the land. (The typical renter -- a thirtysomething urban male!) Another set of speakers talked about their work on downtown Tokyo farmer's markets, and their new newsletter. Another group floated their idea of rice scholarships for students -- supplementing traditional scholarships with Japanese rice, encouraging healthy local eating.
Our favorite project? A for-profit startup that brings displays full of fresh local produce into office buildings, letting workers easily buy healthy snacks. The company, Trace, was founded by Yoshihisa Haruyama, a farm kid from Hokkaido who studied at UCLA, worked at Google Tokyo, but left his job to launch an Agriculture 2.0 startup. We met up with Yoshi to learn more. He identified three big worrying trends:
Farming in Japan is collapsing. It's hard work for very low profits, with strong competition from imports. Yoshi's youngest brother's making a go of it on the family farm, but he's an anomaly -- the average age of the Japanese farmer is now 67.
Young Japanese office workers work can work 12+ hour days, 5-6 days a week. Single workers often don't cook or eat at home, or shop for produce.
Japan's facing the early beginnings of a new obesity crisis, as more people adopt American-style diets.
It's common for large offices to have snack boxes, selling junk food and candy for around 100 Yen ($1.10) per item; these are mostly provided by a single office snack provider company. Yoshi's startup plans to take on this market, placing glass showcases in offices selling fresh seasonal cut fruit and juices at 150-250 Yen (about $1.65-2.75) per item.
Produce is sourced directly from farmers in Hokkaido and Chiba, cutting out the middleman, and buying leftover produce consumers won't buy -- local shoppers tend to be particularly leery of misshapen produce. The food's processed in Tokyo, and distributed to local office buildings. The distribution team ensures that containers are returned and reused, and any waste food (only 3% of total) is composted and sold to local farmers. Trace has 15 offices in beta test, and has agreements to launch in almost 200 offices by the end of the year.
Yoshi told us he was inspired in part by the healthy food served at Google's Tokyo office, and it seems like he's still thinking about mass customization of services, using user feedback, surveys, and demographic data for each office to vary the product mix around the year. For example, employees at a beta office that's 80% female expressed significantly higher interest in skin health, so their product mix includes more apple juice.
Trace also takes customer education seriously, figuring the more consumers learn about fresh healthy local produce, the more likely they are to choose Trace. Yoshi showed us their handy new iPhone app for smarter shopping, showing users what's in season, and how to visibly identify the freshest produce at the market. They also produce a weekly email sent Monday mornings to every employee at participating offices. More tech-enabled educational tools on the way. In their tests, they've found that seeing early adopters eat healthier snacks in the office can create positive peer pressure on others to do the same.
Tokyo, and perhaps all of Japan, appears to be obsessed with streetside vending machines; the streets of our neighborhood in Tokyo are littered with them, selling bottled water, coffee, juices, soda, chips, even ice cream. Just because this is a food-oriented culture doesn't mean that everything about is healthy or sustainable. It's been fun discovering urban consumer-side projects pushing for change. It'll take all of us, and all our skills (organizing, technology, marketing) to make change.
(Next post: Why Japanese climate activists are having their "Obama" moment)