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Thursday, March 20, 2008

TABLE FOR TWO INTERNATIONAL

NPO works to reduce hunger, trim waistlines


Staff writer

Still haven't made up your mind what to eat for lunch today?

News photo
Pola Orbis employees Mikiko Matsumoto (left) and Kyoko Hara eat a Table For Two lunch in the company's cafeteria at its head office in Tokyo on March 7. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Why not try some of the wholesome dishes suggested by a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization that, it claims, not only helps with weight loss but at the same time contributes to reducing hunger in developing countries.

This may sound difficult to achieve, but the NPO, Table For Two International, uses a unique donation system that makes it easy for companies and employees to participate.

Thanks to the program the organization launched last year in Japan, part of the sales of healthy lunches at company canteens are donated to schools mainly in Africa to support school lunches for children.

"The idea is to address the global food problem — obesity in the advanced nations and famine in the developing world," said Masa Kogure, president of Table For Two International, which has been working to spread the lunch program at companies since last summer.

The program has quickly gained recognition from companies as a way of demonstrating corporate social responsibility. Around 30 well-known firms and local government offices have taken part in the program, including IBM Japan Ltd., NEC Corp., trading house Itochu Corp. and Yokohama City Hall.

"The program goes beyond just offering healthy meals. Being able to make a contribution to society provides an incentive to pick the healthy lunch items," Kogure said.

The program is the brainchild of six Japanese entrepreneurs, lawmakers and academics, including Motohisa Furukawa, a Lower House lawmaker from the Democratic Party of Japan, and Kohei Takashima, president of Oisix Inc., a startup that sells food products on the Internet.

The goal of the program is to improve people's health and to correct the stark imbalance between people in wealthy and poor countries.

The idea was brought up by the NPO's six founders at a meeting of a subcommittee of the World Economic Forum in Vancouver, British Columbia, in June 2006. At this year's annual Davos meeting in Switzerland in January, meeting participants at the main venue were provided with 2,100 Table For Two lunches, paid for by the WEF.

Under the Table For Two donation system, when employees of participating companies select healthy lunch items at staff canteens that conform to the NPO's standards, ¥20 per meal is donated to Table For Two to support school lunches in developing countries through the U.N. World Food Program and U.S.-based NPO Millennium Promise.

A Table For Two meal should not exceed 800 kilocalories, and the meal should feature a well-balanced diet and use many kinds of vegetables.

The participating companies are required to come up with special dishes designated for the program that meet these criteria.

"We didn't want to make the criteria too strict," Kogure said, adding that allowing room for flexibility makes it easier for companies to develop their own lunch menus.

Although ¥20 per meal may seem a small amount, Kogure said it is enough to support one lunch meal in a developing country.

"Our activities are also gaining companies' attention thanks to the new government regulation (beginning in April) that requires people over age 40 to be tested for metabolic syndrome," he said. Metabolic syndrome is a combination of medical disorders that increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Cosmetics maker Pola Orbis Holdings Inc.'s head office in Tokyo is one of the successful examples of how a low-calorie diet that contributes to charity can prove popular with diners. The company offers a Table For Two lunch every Friday.

"I eat the Table For Two lunch meals almost every week," Pola employee Kyoko Hara said.

"Many people don't know what to start with to take part in social action programs. Because the healthy meals at Pola are delicious, it's easy for us to participate," Hara said while eating a Table For Two meal at the canteen on March 7.

The items on the Table For Two lunch menu that day, which was priced at ¥300 and had a total of 710 kilocalories, included steamed rice mixed with vegetables and fish, grilled salmon and miso soup with minced fish ball.

The prices of the meals at Pola vary according to the day's menu, but they are usually set at around ¥300 per meal, including the ¥20 donation. Staff cafeterias at companies are usually subsidized by the firms as part of their welfare system and this makes it even easier for employees to take part.

Pola now provides the lunch program at four other staff canteens, including its office in Yokohama and its factory in Shizuoka Prefecture, and has so far raised ¥70,740 by selling 3,537 meals between October and December. The company has donated a total of ¥141,480 by contributing the same amount of money as the meals made.

"The major reason why the program has been successful is that the message is clear and easy to understand. If you select the meal one day, you will support a child's school lunch in a developing country," said Ayako Nagai from Pola's corporate responsibility promotion division.

"Our employees' survey shows that nearly 70 percent of the workers said they bought the Table For Two lunch items because they thought they can make a contribution to developing countries," Nagai said.

Although the Table For Two activities got off to a positive start, the NPO faces various challenges.

Some companies are simply not interested in such activities, while others, especially manufacturers with large factories, express concern whether factory workers will be satisfied with such a low-calorie lunch, the NPO's Kogure said.

Another challenge is that because the amount of donation per meal is small, the NPO cannot raise enough money to sustain the program if companies only engage in a one-time promotion.

"We are now asking participating companies to continue the lunch program at least for six months," Kogure said, adding that the program is aimed at keeping the firms involved for long enough to continue supporting children in developing nations and allowing employees in wealthy countries to continue their efforts to eat healthy meals.

The program has also drawn the attention of companies overseas.

Kogure said Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in the United States will soon introduce the program. He also said two companies in India began the lunch program in December.

Kogure's ambition is not only to spread the program overseas but also to expand its accessibility.

"We hope to provide the Table For Two meals at convenience stores and ordinary restaurants in the future," Kogure said.



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