There are 2,286 "children's cafeterias" across Japan that serve free or low-priced food to children, according to a survey conducted by an organization of the operators of such establishments.
Five to six years have passed since Japan's first children's cafeteria was launched. It is reassuring that such activities led by residents of regional communities to support children have rapidly spread throughout the country.
Revelations that school lunch is the only decent food for some needy youngsters drew public attention around the time the government announced the child poverty rate for the first time in 2009. The outcome of one survey shows that roughly 15 percent of households across the country have experienced being unable to buy sufficient foodstuffs necessary for their members over the past year.
The law providing for countermeasures against child poverty that came into force in 2014 has given momentum to efforts to support youngsters in poverty. Local residents, NPOs, social welfare organizations and companies began to operate cafeterias for children.
The initial purpose of operating children's cafeterias was to support the livelihoods of children from families in poverty, including the provision of food. However, since it is difficult to identify children in poverty, it is no easy task to attract only those in need to such cafes.
Because of this, a growing number of these cafes accept not only children in poverty but also other children and elderly people living alone.
An advantage of children's cafeterias is that anyone can participate in their operations. On the other hand, it has been pointed out that the management foundations for many such facilities are fragile. Some children's cafeterias can be opened only once or twice a month because of a shortage of funds or personnel. Concerns remain about the safety management of children's cafeterias, including how to prevent sanitation problems such as food poisoning, other accidents and fires.
However, if the operators of children's cafeterias are to rely on the central or local governments for financial support, regulations on the management of such establishments could be tightened, possibly restraining the activities of their operators. The authorities could also demand that children's cafeterias quickly make notable achievements.
In order to expand such long-term, community-based activities without relying on government subsidies, it is essential to create a system under which neighborhood associations and communities in elementary school districts can secure locations for such cafeterias and the necessary funds.
There used to be people in regional communities or relatives who helped look after children whose parents didn't have the capacity or means to rear them. However, as family and social bonds have become looser nowadays, mutual support systems have declined considerably.
Children's cafeterias may serve a role just like small water springs in dry regional communities. Activities to support needy children by providing free or low-priced food, which were initiated by regional communities, have been steadily spreading throughout the country. Every effort needs to be devoted to making these activities sustainable.