The Premier League is one of the UK’s biggest exports and fans from all over the globe are a common sight at elite football grounds in England.
Ken Narita followed the well-worn path, travelling almost 6,000 miles from his home in rural Okayama, Japan, to attend three Premier League matches this week. But he wasn’t there to catch a glimpse of football stars – he was headed to stadiums to help out at football supporters’ foodbanks instead.
Former Northumbria University student Ken first travelled to Newcastle last Saturday as the Toon Army defeated Chelsea 1-0. While he did watch the match from the stands at St James’ Park, he was really in town to help out with Big Issue Changemaker NUFC Fans’ Foodbank.
The next day he made the trip to Anfield to volunteer with another Big Issue Changemaker Fans Supporting Foodbanks as Liverpool took on Manchester United.
And, not content with seeing the Red Devils lose in Liverpool, he then headed to Old Trafford on Wednesday to complete his hat-trick, adding an extra pair of hands to MUFC Fans’ Foodbanks’ efforts.
Ken, 41, told The Big Issue: “Two years ago I started a foodbank in Japan and I found that there are only 100 foodbanks in Japan compared to more than 1,000 in the UK. For me, that shows that people care for each other so I decided to come to this country.
“When I was looking at coming to the UK last May I was researching foodbanks and came across the NUFC Fans Foodbank on Facebook and we exchanged messages and it went from there.
“Going to fans foodbanks showed me that all these groups share a common purpose but there were differences in how people gave to them – in Newcastle a lot of people gave money as well as food but at Liverpool there was a lot of food while at Manchester United it was a mix of both.
“I’ve seen Manchester United lose quite a lot and I was staying with a United fan in Manchester which was a bit awkward.”
The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
The UK trip was more than just a football tour – it was also a fact-finding mission on how the UK deals with food poverty.
Ken runs mobile supermarket Foodsharing Japan in his home country, an award-winning group that rescues food from supermarket and restaurant bins and redistributes it to charities for people in need.
In the UK, Ken also visited FareShare North East and Newcastle’s West End Foodbank – the biggest foodbank in the country – as well as Dundee Foodbank and Community Fridge in Scotland in his pursuit of knowledge.
He will be rounding out his trip in Denmark and Germany before heading home.
“In Japan, for five days a week, for mornings and afternoons, I pick up the food from a supermarket – around 50-70kg – and then I deliver it to charities and people,” said Ken.
“The most surprising thing for me is that in the UK foodbank groups are so active. A lot more people care about the food and the people. In Dundee and Newcastle I saw that up close.
Kenichi Narita got a new lease on life with support from his neighbors and giving back the love with a supermarket on wheels that reaches out to the elderly. pic.twitter.com/VhDVrJE0fE
— NHK WORLD News (@NHKWORLD_News) September 11, 2019
“When I get back to Japan I will have to write a report to spread the message of what I have learned to charities, supermarkets and local government.
“Before coming here, I didn’t have much confidence because I’ve only been running a foodbank with my group and I don’t have much experience with foodbanks and knowledge about them so this experience has been a big surprise for me.”
While the trip to the UK has had a big impact on Ken, he also made an impression on fans in Newcastle.
NUFC Fans’ Foodbank’s Stuart Latimer told The Big Issue: “It was a real pleasure having Ken join us all the way from Japan and he got a tremendous reception at the NUFC Foodbank 20 years after being a student in the city here with Newcastle fans saying ‘Ken is a Geordie’!
“His commitment to food distribution both in the UK and Japan was very interesting as we will, as a planet and population, have to come together to stop poverty anywhere on earth and ensure food for all in the future with everyone working together.”