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Rapid rise in 'children's cafes' offering free or cheap food: survey

Children eat curry at a children's cafeteria in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, on March 27, 2018, while interacting with friends and volunteers.

"Cafeterias for children," or "kodomo shokudo" in Japanese, that provide free or low-priced food to youngsters are operating at 2,286 locations across the country, a survey conducted by an organization of operators of such facilities has shown.

    These facilities are operating in order to provide children in regional communities with venues for interaction and to help prevent adverse effects from child poverty.

    Children's cafes emerged five to six years ago, and the number of such facilities is believed to have drastically increased since. However, there is a wide gap in the number of cafeterias for children between regions.

    "It's desirable to have such a facility in each elementary school district. Both the public and private sectors should join hands in increasing such facilities," said an official of "Kodomo Shokudo Anshin Anzen Kojo Iinkai" ("Committee to enhance safety of cafeterias for children") that conducted the survey.

    There is neither a legal definition of children's cafeterias nor an administrative framework for supporting such cafeterias. Therefore, the actual situation of cafeterias for children across the country had remained unknown.

    The first such establishment is believed to have been launched in Tokyo's Ota Ward in 2012, and has since spread throughout the country. Various entities, ranging from nonprofit organizations and social welfare corporations to private companies, are involved in the operation of such cafeterias.

    The committee conducted the survey from January to March this year via local councils for social welfare across the country. Judgment of the scope of facilities that should be regarded as falling under cafeterias for children was left to the discretion of each social welfare panel.

    The survey outcome shows that there are particularly large numbers of children's cafeterias in densely populated urban areas. By prefecture, there are 335 cafeterias for children in Tokyo, 219 in Osaka and169 in Kanagawa.

    Analysis of 2012 data conducted by Kensaku Tomuro, associate professor at Yamagata University, shows that there are over 100 such cafeterias each in Okinawa and Hokkaido where child poverty rates are relatively high. Five prefectures including Tokushima and Nagasaki have less than 10 facilities.

    Hosei University professor Makoto Yuasa, who heads the committee, told a news conference at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry on April 3, "I guess that children's cafeterias have increased as a result of efforts to create venues for interaction for both children and adults including elderly people and as child poverty countermeasures."

    Many of these cafeterias actually serve food to not only children in their respective communities but also their parents and elderly residents in their neighborhoods.

    Yuasa pointed out that the increase is also attributable to local governments' efforts to promote the establishment of such facilities since the law on countermeasures against child poverty came into force in 2014.

    The survey also highlights problems involving some children's cafeterias, including those that have not taken out insurance policies to cover possible food poisoning or other accidents.

    The panel launched a crowd-funding campaign on April 3 to secure insurance premiums for 200 cafeterias for children across the country.

    "Dandan," which greengrocery owner Hiroko Kondo, now 58, opened in the summer of 2012, is believed to be the first such cafeteria for children.

    She believes that the number of children's cafeterias has since rapidly increased because "it's easy for local residents to cooperate in operations to manage children's restaurants, such as donating cooking ingredients."

    Kondo added she feels that children's cafeterias are playing a role of addressing child poverty as well as strengthening social bonds.

    Nonprofit organization "Toshima Kodomo WAKUWAKU Network," based in Tokyo's Toshima Ward, runs a children's cafeteria twice a month in a residential area of the ward. About 20 to 30 children, from preschool aged children to high school students, gather at the cafeteria.

    The network opens the cafeteria also to provide a venue for children of single mothers, who perform multiple jobs to make a living, to relax. The work is supported by volunteers, including elderly women and university students.

    Michiko Yamamoto, 70, a board member of the nonprofit organization, said, "We'd like to make the cafeteria a place where those exhausted from childrearing and work can feel secure."

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