Table for Two: Feeding the world

Table for Two: Feeding the world

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Chloe Sageman

It is not often that one hears of a Japanese initiative with the potential to have vast global effect; however, the recently born Table For Two Project promises to do just that. Originating from a meeting of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders in 2006, Table For Two is a project with Japanese roots. The brainchild of several prominent Japanese leaders, the project has since escalated and is now looking to establish itself as a global initiative with the potential to positively affect the lives of many, in both the developing and the developed worlds.

Table For Two’s creation came about in light of the inexorable irony that whilst there are one billion people suffering from hunger, there are another one billion who suffer from obesity and other lifestyle related diseases; of our world of six billion, this equates to a third of Earth’s inhabitants suffering from poor nutrition. It has consequently become clear that a solution is not only preferable but an urgent necessity. There have been many organizations and schemes created in order to try and combat the problems of hunger and obesity, however, until Table For Two, none have thought to try and tackle these dual concerns at the same time. Attempting to simultaneously overcome these two huge global issues may seem an impossibly complex task, however, it is Table For Two’s simplicity that is perhaps its biggest asset.

The Table For Two initiative asks participating cafeterias and restaurants in the developed world to agree to serve healthy meals that meet specific criteria set by the program. Whenever one of these healthy meals is sold, a donation of 20 yen is made to Table For Two. Table For Two then provides participating schools (formed through an alliance with the World Food Programme and the Millennium Promise) in the developing world with a school meal to the value of 20 yen. In purchasing a participant healthy meal, one is able to help both oneself and another; in essence, one has asked for a Table For Two.

Just six short pilot studies have provided astonishing results; in only a few months, support for approximately 40,600 school meals was raised, the equivalent of feeding 200 children throughout the school year. Furthermore, by providing these meals within schools, Table For Two is able to create a second round of educational benefits. By providing an additional incentive for children to actually attend school, Table For Two is thus able to have an indirect influence upon those benefits associated with the increased education of any community, such as decreased infant mortality and lower fertility rates.

Table For Two is the product of Japanese minds, so it is consequently unsurprising that the underlying philosophies of this project are deeply rooted in the Japanese way of thinking. Two philosophies in particular, ware tada taru wo shiru and mottainai, have been fundamental in assisting Table For Two’s creation.

Most visitors to Kyoto find their way to Ryoanji and its famous Zen Gardens. Hidden within these gardens is a stone washbasin (tsukubai) round in shape with a square hole in its middle. Around the hole are four characters, meaningless in isolation, that once proved something of a riddle for trainee monks. Indeed, it is only when the square hole is taken to be a component of each of the four characters and when the characters are read clockwise that the stone comes to read ware tada taru wo shiru (吾唯足知), literally meaning ‘I am content with what is enough’.

Like the tsukubai, Table For Two understands that it must consider the whole when trying to tackle global issues. Ecological hypotheses, such as James Lovelock’s Gaia, have long recognized the importance of recognizing the Earth in its entirety; the Earth is one breathing organism and when all its elements are working in harmony, it is able to have a self-regulatory effect. It is perhaps time that such hypotheses were taken out of their environmental origins and also considered within the human social element; it is time for humankind to think and interact globally in order to achieve balance and the optimum level of living for all. We need to recognise how our relatively small actions occurring at the local scale can have a global effect; indeed, through Table For Two, the simple matter of eating a meal will be able to have positive, regulatory consequences that disseminate through to the other side of the world.

The Japanese spirit of mottainai has also provided substantial inspiration for Table For Two. Loosely translated, mottainai comes to mean ‘it is so wasteful that things are not put to their full use’, and is a word commonly used in everyday Japanese vocabulary. The use of this word encompasses how we must show respect for Earth and its inhabitants; it encompasses the importance of making the most of what we have and ensuring that we use it to its full potential. A Zen tale explaining the difference between Heaven and Hell illustrates this concept well:

A young boy had been learning the teachings of the Buddha, meditating each day in front of the Buddha’s image. He wanted to learn more of the difference between Heaven and Hell and, in response to this, one night the Buddha came to him in a dream. The Buddha told the boy, ‘there are no material differences between Heaven and Hell’ and then took him to each in turn.

Looking upon Hell, the boy saw a table laden with large pots of delicious, steaming noodles. Sat around the table were people holding four-foot long chopsticks, each having been given strict instructions to hold them only at their far end. Although they could pick up the noodles, they were unable to get them in their mouths. Their bodies were starved and their faces angry; unable to feed themselves, they started fighting in despair.

Looking upon Heaven, the boy saw the same table set with the same large pots of mouth-watering noodles. The people sat round it were holding the same long chopsticks and had been given the same strict instructions of how to hold them; however, the people here were happy and healthy. Rather than selfishly trying to feed only themselves, those in Heaven had learnt to feed each other across the table. Through showing consciousness, cooperation and compassion they had chosen to work together for the greater good.

The Table For Two project reflects the actions of those in Heaven, and thus encompasses the complementary values of both ware tada taru wo shiru and mottainai, different philosophies that essentially form two sides of the same coin. By accepting these teachings, we learn that it is crucial that we know our limits, and through global cooperation and initiatives such as Table For Two, it is vital that we learn to make the most of the opportunities that we have been given.

Table For Two is currently only in the beginning stages of its development, although there are already plans to expand its distribution next year to both Europe and North America. By encompassing its Japanese philosophies, this project has the potential to constructively affect the lives of many worldwide, as well as put the efforts of Japan’s civil society on the international stage. For more information, including information on participating in Table For Two, please visit the Table For Two website.