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'Children's cafeterias' serving free or cheap food increase in Japan

Children eat food served at a "children's cafeteria" in the city of Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of Kazuyuki Noguchi)

TOKYO -- The number of "children's cafeterias" providing free or low-priced meals to local kids in Japan increased to 3,718 at the very least as of May 2019, according to a survey conducted by nonprofit organization Musubie that supports networks of such facilities across the nation.

Musubie announced the results of the survey here on June 26 during a press conference and analyzed that the increase by 1.6 times from the figure recorded a year ago is due to the spread of information that children's cafeterias are "not just a measure to tackle poverty, but a hub for regional exchange."

The survey was conducted from June 2018 to May 2019 by tallying up cafeterias that were identifiable through networks of children's cafeterias in each prefecture. It let study support programs that also serve meals to kids decide on whether to identify themselves as cafeterias.

The number of children's cafeterias increased in 46 of the 47 prefectures in Japan, except for the northwestern Japan prefecture of Akita in which the number remained the same as last year. Prefectures with big cities, such as Osaka in western Japan, Tokyo and neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture have many such establishments, but in terms of growth rate, the number of facilities in Nagasaki Prefecture in southern Japan, Fukushima Prefecture in northeast Japan and Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo, increased threefold or more.

Musubie believes it is ideal for there to be one children's cafeteria per one elementary school district, so that all kids have access to such facilities. However, the national average fulfillment rate stood at 17.3%, or one cafeteria per six primary school districts.

By prefecture, Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, whose administrative bodies are putting great effort into tackling the issue of child poverty, topped the list with the highest fulfillment rate of 60.5%. This was followed by Shiga Prefecture in western Japan at 52.5% and Tokyo at 36.6%. Akita saw the lowest fulfillment rate of 5.5%.

"The fact that there are fewer children's cafeterias in mountainous areas is among the issues of uneven distribution that needs solving. To eliminate safety problems, such as food poisoning and food allergies, public support is necessary," Musubie Chairman Makoto Yuasa said during the press conference.

Kazuyuki Noguchi, an adviser to a network of children's cafeteria operators in Saitama Prefecture, says that the "situation surrounding problems of securing food, human resources and places to run the cafeterias is improving due to intensified efforts by the prefectural government."

However, of the 123 children's cafeterias that were in operation in Saitama as of August 2018, some 10%, or 13 cafeterias, had discontinued or suspended operations as of February 2019, according to Noguchi. He commented, "It's at the point where we need to look into why (cafeterias) have had to discontinue operations. We hope to keep increasing the numbers (of cafeterias) and maintain their quality at the same time."

(Japanese original by Kaoru Yamadera, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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