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Children's cafeteria in Japan urges gov't to address poverty and lack of support

Yasuko Kawabe, representative director of Nishinari Child Care Center, is seen eating dinner with kids at the children's cafeteria operated by the nonprofit group in the city of Osaka's Nishinari Ward, on Oct. 18, 2021. (Mainichi/Daiki Takikawa)

OSAKA -- A bit past 5 p.m., children who had just ended school filed into the first-floor room of a municipal housing complex one after the other. In the space consisting of some 15 tatami mats (equivalent to about 27 square meters), there were four tables surrounded by kids playing with toys and taking part in a game of shogi, while seated on tatami mats and rugs. "Dinner's ready," a voice called from the kitchen, prompting them to clear the table all at once, and get in line before the kitchen carrying plates. Someone called out, "Today's menu is minced meat patties. There's soba noodles too," and the room was filled with smiles and laughter.

    At "Nishinari children's cafeteria" in Osaka's Nishinari Ward, meals are offered free of charge three times a week to elementary, junior high and senior high school students, and other kids. On busy days, around 50 children visit the space. The person in charge of the children's cafeteria is Yasuko Kawabe, 55, the representative director of the nonprofit organization Nishinari Child Care Center.

    Kawabe began operating the children's cafeteria in 2012. Two years prior to this, she witnessed some kids fighting at a facility in the city she worked at, and felt that they were irritated because they were hungry. This led her to start a cooking class held twice a month. Although she served food made in the class, the project targeted children of elementary school age or older, and kindergarteners and other toddlers could not join it. She opened the cafeteria in the hope that anyone can use its services, regardless of age. In 2017, she established the nonprofit group.

    According to a 2019 Comprehensive Survey of Living Conditions, announced by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the child poverty rate, or the rate of children aged under 18 who live in households with incomes less than half of that earned by middle-income groups, stood at 13.5% as of 2018 -- meaning one out of seven children were in poverty. Among households with children, the poverty rate of single parent households, including single mother families, was as high as 48.1%.

    Many such low-income households, including single parent families, also reside in Nishinari Ward. "The majority of children who come to the cafeteria are from single mother families," said Kawabe. She said some children can't even scoop food well onto plates, since they are accustomed to eating rice balls and other meals bought at convenience stores, as their parents come home late from work. "Kids, who could only put a small amount of food onto their plates, gradually become able to take the right amount they want to eat as they frequent this place. The children's cafeteria also serves as a place to acquire knowledge on daily life," Kawabe said.

    Yasuko Kawabe, second from right, representative director of Nishinari Child Care Center, is seen preparing dinner at the children's cafeteria operated by the nonprofit group in the city of Osaka's Nishinari Ward, on Oct. 18, 2021. (Mainichi/Daiki Takikawa)

    When schools across the country were simultaneously closed in the spring of 2020 amid the spread of coronavirus infections, the cafeteria offered lunch six times a week for children who became unable to eat meals served at school.

    The Act on the Promotion of Policy on Child Poverty was enacted in 2014, followed by a nationwide increase in local governments that lent support to children's cafeterias by providing subsidies. The government of the city of Osaka, which is where Nishinari children's cafeteria is based, offers subsidies to the local council of social welfare that carries out training for operating children's cafeterias, but does not provide aid to the organizations running them, claiming that "as a basic rule, children's cafeterias are operated on the idea of 'self-help.'" Although Nishinari Ward began its own subsidy program in 2017, Kawabe's place was unable to receive benefits as only facilities opened within the past three years were covered under the program.

    "Including food ingredients, our operations are all able to be carried on thanks to donations from individuals, firms and other parties. We really appreciate their generosity, but it's sad the city brushes off our efforts as 'self-reliant activities,'" said Kawabe. She insisted that "a system where there is no great difference among local governments is necessary."

    Social issues, such as the struggles of single mother families with low incomes, lurk in the background of children's poverty. "Under the child-rearing allowance scheme for single parent households, payments covering children born after the first child are smaller than that distributed to the eldest. I'd like an amendment to be made so that the younger siblings can receive the same amount as the oldest child," said Kawabe, who believes that the problem will not be solved unless extra economic assistance is provided.

    The Japanese government is set to establish a children's agency to tackle poverty issues among children, but "if the government fails to take measures addressing the actual state of poverty in the country, the effort will end as something insubstantial that exists in name only," Kawabe said. She added, "I'd like to listen carefully to the claims of each political party to vote for the one that shows the most thoughtfulness toward children."

    (Japanese original by Koichi Kirino, Osaka City News Department)

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