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1 ton of Fukushima rice sent to Osaka to ease hardship of pandemic

A total of 150 bags of rice delivered to "Nishinari children's cafeteria" from rice farmers in Fukushima Prefecture are seen in Nishinari Ward, Osaka, on April 19, 2021. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

OSAKA -- On April 19, two groups helping needy children in the western Japan city of Osaka received a total of 1 metric ton of rice from a farmers' group in Fukushima Prefecture in northeastern Japan, hundreds of kilometers away.

    As the spread of the coronavirus has hit the lives of economically distressed families, the need for "children's cafeterias," which provide free meals to local children, has increased. But why did the farmers from Fukushima, so far away from Osaka, decide to help?

    One of the recipients of the Fukushima rice was "Nishinari children's cafeteria," on the first floor of a municipal housing complex in Nishinari Ward, Osaka, near JR Imamiya Station.

    "Rice is always in short supply, so this is really helpful," said Yasuko Kawabe, 55, the representative director of the nonprofit Nishinari Child Care Center that has operated the children's cafeteria since 2012, looking at the 150, 5-kilogram bags of rice that had been unloaded from a truck.

    Later, the truck also stopped by a network tackling children's poverty in Osaka's Kita Osaka and delivered 250 kilograms of rice.

    The proportion of welfare recipients in the city of Osaka has hovered around 5%, but Nishinari Ward, which includes the Airin district known for its many day laborers, stands out at 23%. There are also many single-mother families receiving welfare. The nonprofit group serves free dinners to 30 to 40 children twice a week, using food donated by companies and individuals.

    When schools were closed due to the first COVID-19 state of emergency in April to May 2020, the group also provided lunch six times a week for five months to children who had nowhere else to go during the day. It also mailed groceries to economically disadvantaged families, and rice was always in short supply.

    Amid all this, the Fukushima farmers' federation based in the city of Fukushima moved to provide support. The federation represents about 2,000 farmers in the northeast prefecture and is involved in the shipment of agricultural products.

    According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, a little over 60% of the rice produced in Fukushima Prefecture is used for commercial purposes, such as in bento boxes and at restaurants -- higher than the national average of just under 40%. According to the federation, due to reputational damage caused by the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Holdings Inc., it is difficult to sell rice to the general public despite the fact that its safety has been confirmed, and there is therefore a trend to use it for commercial purposes.

    Yasuko Kawabe, representative director of Nishinari Child Care Center, smiles as she holds rice delivered from Fukushima Prefecture farmers, in Nishinari Ward, Osaka, on April 19, 2021. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

    The coronavirus has dealt an additional blow to the already struggling Fukushima rice sector, as demand has dropped for restaurant food due to businesses suspending operations. Nationwide demand for rice as a staple dropped by 210,000 tons in the year up to June 2020, from 7.35 million tons in the previous year.

    The impact on rice produced in Fukushima Prefecture, which has relied on demand from restaurants, has been more serious, and Takehiro Sasaki, 45, secretary-general of the farmer's federation, said, "Fukushima rice has been particularly affected by the coronavirus pandemic."

    Since selling surplus rice at a discount could result in a price collapse, the federation decided to deliver rice to any facilities that needed it. In April, they heard about the situation at the children's cafeteria in Nishinari Ward from Nobuyo Fujinaga, 81, vice chairperson of the Osaka child poverty network, whom they knew from selling rice in Osaka some 30 years ago, and immediately offered to help.

    The network covered the transportation costs to Osaka. Fujinaga said, "When there is rice in the rice bin, the atmosphere in the home calms down. I want people to know that there are more than a few families who cannot afford to buy enough rice."

    Sasaki commented, "There is a surplus of rice in Japan as a whole, but it is not reaching the people who need it. This is a problem that should be solved through a public system. Our efforts are small, but we would like to keep doing what we can to deliver rice so that such support will expand."

    The nonprofit group's Kawabe added, "We would like to support not only families with children, but also university students whose lives have become difficult due to the effects of the coronavirus."

    For inquiries, call Nishinari Child Care Center at 06-7709-5432 (in Japanese) or visit the organization's website at https://kodomo-silyokudou.jp/index.html.

    (Japanese original by Mirai Nagira, Osaka City News Department)

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