New York Japanese American Organizations Launch Project Bento

I’ve been working on an initiative during this COVID-19 pandemic, and I’m proud to share it with all of you.

Project Bento officially launched on Monday, May 4!

Project Bento is a program under the auspices of The Japanese American Association of New York, Inc. in partnership with Sunrise Mart that offers bento to seniors and disabled members in New York’s Japanese American community.

With each bento generously donated by Sunrise Mart, Ito En is providing Japanese tea, and Daiei Trading is providing senbei, or rice crackers. Volunteers throughout New York City are sewing masks, and JAA Vice President Yuki Kaneshige is collecting them so that each senior will receive one with the bento, tea, and senbei.

Each Monday Erina Yoshida of Sunrise Mart and volunteer members of JAA and other Japanese-related organizations travel throughout Manhattan and the Bronx, delivering these goodies to seniors in our community. We also deliver bento in Queens and Brooklyn on Thursdays.

Erina Yoshida (right) of Sunrise Mart and JAA Vice President Yuki Kaneshige on the launch of Project Bento on May 4, 2020

Support from Local Restaurants

Even in its infancy, Project Bento is resonating with people who want to help us make a difference. Last week bento maker BentOn joined Project Bento, providing bento to seniors living in Queens from their factory in Long Island City. While they are not making a 100% donation, they are providing the bento to JAA at cost.

SAPPORO USA and an anonymous donor collaborated with Lower East Side restaurant JUKU to provide 25 Japanese and JA seniors at Isabella Center with these delicious bento.

If you are affiliated with a restaurant and want to donate bento (or provide at cost), please email me at

BentOn in LIC joined Project Bento on May 14, 2020
Bento prepared by JUKU and delivered to Isabella Center on May 12, 2020 (photo by senior recipient)
(from left) Madame Yukiko Yamanouchi, Chef Shogo Tsutsumi, Erina Yoshida, Ambassador Kanji Yamanouchi, Chef Yasuhiro Shima at the Ambassador’s residence with donated bento

Support from the Japanese Consulate

Ambassador Kanji Yamanouchi, Consul General of Japan in New York, supports Project Bento! On Monday, May 18, Chef Yasuhiro Shima and Chef Shogo Tsutsumi, the official chefs at the residence of Ambassador and Madame Yukiko Yamanouchi, prepared 25 bento for Japanese and JA seniors at Isabella Center. They will prepare 25 more bento next week, bringing the Consulate’s total donation to 50. Each meal comes with a mask handmade by JAA volunteers and words of encouragement written by the Ambassador and printed on origami paper.

Bento prepared by Ambassador Yamanouchi’s chefs and donated to JA seniors living at Isabella Center (photo by a senior recipient)

Project Bento is More Than Food

In addition to the volunteers who made deliveries, other volunteers call the seniors to do wellness checks to ensure their health and safety and to engage them in conversation. At a time when we can’t gather together, these seniors miss companionship. Hearing a voice in Japanese, even for a few minutes, has made a huge difference. These seniors have been craving Japanese food, and many don’t have access to Japanese grocery stores. A weekly bento has helped fill a void.

To see and hear the gratitude from the seniors we are calling and visiting has been heartwarming. While we are doing this as a service to seniors, the volunteers have found that Project Bento has been just as meaningful and fulfilling for them.

Project Bento: Bento from Sunrise Mart, tea from Ito En, senbei from Daiei Trading, mask from community volunteers (photo by senior recipient)
Grateful seniors send photos of their bento
Project Bento volunteers

How to Volunteer

We are looking for more volunteers to make phone calls and/or deliveries to seniors. Fluency in Japanese is not a requirement, but it is helpful.

If volunteers wish to make deliveries, we will pair them with seniors based on where they live. We do not want our volunteers to use public transportation or endanger themselves, so we request that all volunteers travel SAFELY (on foot, by bike, in your own car).

Before people are allowed to volunteer, the organizers of this project will vet them to ensure that they are reliable, have good judgment, are healthy, and will follow health safety protocols. We require all potential volunteers to answer a questionnaire and sign a liability waiver that they will receive once they express interest in volunteering. Send an email to me at

Flyer design by Emily Akpan; artwork by Lauren Sumida

How to Donate

We are also accepting donations to help defray expenses and to expand this program to reach more people and to provide other necessities. Project Bento wishes to expand to Japanese seniors and others in need who are not necessarily members of JAA.

Donations may be made online:

The Yoshida Family created a Project Bento GoFundMe campaign. Although Sunrise Mart is generously donating 100 bento per week, we will surpass that number as we continue to outreach. The Yoshida Family wants to keep Project Bento going. (And so do we.)

More Than a Box

A bento is a box. You can put whatever you want in each compartment. The Japanese would advise you to make sure your box has balance: balance in food groups (protein, vegetables, starch, carbs), flavors (salty, sweet), methods of preparation (grilled, fried, broiled), and even colors. There’s something about a bento that goes beyond the food. You can see it in the eyes, hear it in the voices, and read it in the thank-you emails of the seniors who are the recipients of this simple deed. Yes, a bento is a box, but to the seniors who are homebound during this pandemic, Project Bento is so much more.

Project Bento volunteers

It Takes a Village

Project Bento is run by The Japanese American Association of New York, Inc. in partnership with Sunrise Mart, Ito En, Daiei Trading, BentOn, and New York City Japanese American organizations: the Consulate General of Japan in New York, New York Day of Remembrance, Japanese American Citizens League NY Chapter, New York Japanese-American Lions Club, Japanese Americans/Japanese in America, Tsuru for Solidarity, the U.S.-Japan Council NY Region, and concerned individuals.

(Disclosure: I am one of the founding organizers of Project Bento. I serve on the Board of Directors of The Japanese American Association of New York, Inc. as a Vice President and Secretary.)

Links to information on coronavirus:


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