Responding to a Greater Call
Dan Malovany and Laurie Gorton on the situation in Japan.
BakingBusiness.com, April 1, 2011
by Dan Malovany and Laurie Gorton
Colleague, supplier, customer, competitor, teacher, student, mentor, friend, family — many relationships tie together the people of the Japanese and US milling, baking and allied industries. The situation unfolding in Japan after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami concerns us all.

Although the damage was concentrated on the island nation’s northeastern coastline, the whole country felt — and continues to feel — its effect through multiple aftershocks, accompanied by shortages of transportation, power, fuel, water and food. A related developing crisis at nuclear power generation plants adds to the level of stress. Rolling power blackouts, intended to relieve the enormous strain on the nation’s weakened electrical grid, make it especially difficult for food processors to operate. And operate they must so that people can be fed.

In the days since the disaster struck, we’ve been networking with friends and colleagues in Japan at grain-based foods companies there and at the US subsidiaries of these businesses. We heard from a colleague still waiting to hear from a family member living in Sendai. Another worrying about close relatives evacuated from Fukushima. A friend finding her small Tokyo office turned into a tossed salad of overturned boxes and scattered files.

At the same time, the people of Japan and their businesses continue to show remarkable resilience, but we knew they would.

Take the example of Yamazaki Baking Co. It’s Japan’s biggest bakery, with 33 large plants throughout the island. In all, 31 were operating within days after the disaster. Yamazaki Baking reported its employees were all accounted for, but initially, many could not return to their homes because train service had been seriously disrupted in the hours following the quake. Yamazaki took care of them, and then it set out to aid its countrymen. The company assigned production of nearly half its bakeries to bake 500,000 units a day of bread and other items for the humanitarian relief effort and for those who now live in shelters.

Within two weeks, the company reported that even the bakery in Sendai, the city that took the brunt of the quake and tsunami, had begun producing a select number of bread products for distribution around its area. Still, those bakeries and some 5 million people closest to the effected region face daily rolling power outages, making it a battle to keep retail shelves fully stocked with baked foods.

Although Japan has taken much time and effort to prepare for these disasters, no country — no matter how strong or wealthy — is ever completely ready for the violence of such a natural disaster. From the first news, aid from around the world has begun to assist Japan and its people. In the US, the employees at Vie de France Yamazaki are sending a “Banner of Support” for their co-workers at the Sendai plant.

Ironically, for years, Yamazaki Baking had set up special donation boxes in its 4,500 retail outlets to fund emergency assistance to the victims of the 2004 and 2010 earthquakes and tsunamis in Southeast Asia and to aid those who suffered from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Called the “Yamazaki Love Loaf,” the donation boxes also are a part of a broader fundraising program that provides assistance to various regions and developing countries such Mongolia, Cambodia and nations throughout Africa.

Today, however, the company is responding to the call to help its home country and distribute a little love to its own.