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Japan firms offering cheap meals for children amid virus-triggered school closures

Children buy curry and salad lunch sets at the Karaoke Pasela Ikebukuro main store in Tokyo, on March 9, 2020. (Mainichi/Atsuko Motohashi)

TOKYO -- Food service operators in Japan are offering meals at marked-down prices to children to support families, as most schools across the country, which normally provide lunches to children, remain closed until April due to a government request to combat the spread of the new coronavirus.

Mothers and their children flocked to the Karaoke Pasela Ikebukuro main store in Tokyo's Toshima Ward during lunchtime on March 9. Their objective: takeaway curry and salad lunch sets sold for 100 yen a piece to children aged 3 to 5 in kindergarten and elementary school students. Hitomi Fujimura, 39, who was at the karaoke parlor with her 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son to receive the meals, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Our kindergarten is closed and it's been hectic to prepare lunch every day. I'm grateful it's only 100 yen (per child)."

Newton Corp., a company in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward which operates the Pasela karaoke chain and entertainment establishments, launched the meal support initiative at its three shops in the capital on March 5 and another three outlets in places including Osaka and Yokohama on March 9. The operator plans to run the program until the end of March, but says it will consider extending it depending on the circumstances. A Newton representative says, "We want to support parents troubled by sudden school closures."

Major pub operator Watami Co., which also runs a bento delivery business nationwide, started delivering discounted bento on March 9 for elementary, junior high and high school students who are affected by the school shutdown. However, the company has stopped accepting those who wish to use the service since it's reached the 500,000-meal mark. Under the program, fees for the bento boxes, which are usually set at around 3,000 yen per week will be free of charge during weekdays until April 3 and users will only have to pay 1,000-yen-per-week delivery fees.

In addition, Watami will offer discounts to families with children when they order two bento boxes at a time between March 16 and April 24. The company hopes that the offers will encourage parents to use the service.

Fast food operator Yoshinoya Co. will also mark down the price of takeaway beef bowls regardless of their size by 80 yen for children aged 12 and younger between March 10 and 31. Customers do not have to bring their children to the shops to get the discount if they declare the meals are for their kids. Up to three beef bowls per customer will get marked down.

In the past, Yoshinoya has sold beef bowls to children at half regular prices during long holiday and summer vacation periods. A company representative commented, "We want to support adults who have to prepare meals for their children at this time."

Meanwhile, convenience store chain Lawson Inc. will start distributing rice balls free of charge to day care centers and afterschool facilities across Japan on March 10, as announced earlier. The number of facilities taking up the offer totals roughly 5,000 in all of Japan's 47 prefectures, with some 380,000 rice balls up for grabs -- enough to feed approximately 200,000 children. Lawson is accommodating all requests made by such child care facilities.

Seiichiro Samejima, corporate research chief analyst at Ichiyoshi Research Institute Inc., who is well-versed in the restaurant industry, says taking up socially meaningful activities benefits businesses in increasing their company appeal to the public as well as within their own community. He adds, however, "What they can do is limited (because the cost is covered by each business). More companies are urged to join the movement quickly."

(Japanese original by Atsuko Motohashi and Kenji Wada, Business News Department)

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