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Individuals Can Contribute Through Children’s Cafeterias

Providing Places for Community Interaction Needed in the Pandemic

Kodomo-Shokudo, or Children’s Cafeterias, are places where NPOs or local volunteers provide meals to children. These services are growing in number year by year and now total more than 6,000 locations throughout Japan.

Kubota, as part of its initiatives to help future generations, supports the mission of Kodomo-Shokudo and the role they play as places for community interaction. The company has donated new, freshly-harvested rice to about 560 cafeterias through Japan Kodomo-Shokudo Support Center “MUSUBIE,” Certified Non-profit Organization.

What kind of places are today’s Kodomo-Shokudo? And why have they continued to grow despite the COVID-19 pandemic? In this article, we talk with Musubie’s director Makoto Yuasa about the cafeterias’ significance, changes during the pandemic, and the types of support that will be needed from individuals and corporations in the future.

All About the Fast-Growing Kodomo-Shokudo

Kodomo-Shokudo is the name given to a cafeteria where children can go by themselves and get a meal for free or at low cost. The origins are said to be when the owner of a fruit and vegetable shop called Dandan in Tokyo’s Ota Ward started offering the service in a part of their shop in 2012. The number of locations has continued to grow since then.

  • This is the scene at one of the Kodomo-Shokudo. The cafeterias do more than provide meals to children; they also serve as places for local residents to communicate.

Musubie supports the Kodomo-Shokudo network throughout Japan. The group also helps to connect the cafeterias with supporting companies and organizations, and to raise awareness and conduct research. Every year since 2018, Musubie has enlisted the help of Kodomo-Shokudo regional network organizations throughout Japan to conduct surveys on the number of cafeterias that are operating. As of 2021, the total number of locations was 6,014.

  • A nationwide survey found that there were 6,014 Kodomo-Shokudo in 2021. The number has increased by more than 1,000 each year since the survey began in 2018. (Source: Musubie and regional network organizations)

The Kodomo-Shokudo were originally intended to be run independently by private individuals and organizations. The workers are basically volunteers. The fact that the number of cafeterias has continued to increase over the past two years is surprising, since their growth could have easily stalled given the blow to the restaurant industry from the drawn-out pandemic.

Kodomo-Shokudo Remain a "Place for Children" Despite the Pandemic

“I believe the increase in Kodomo-Shokudo owes to the presence of ‘seedlings’ in society who want to solve the problems people are facing in their lives," says Makoto Yuasa, director of Musubie and social activist.

  • Makoto Yuasa is a social activist and a Project Professor at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, University of Tokyo. Since the 1990s, he has been involved in supporting people facing homelessness and economic hardship. He has held various posts, including Special Advisor to the Cabinet Office, Director of the Cabinet Secretariat's Social Inclusion Promotion Office, and Director of the Disaster Volunteer Liaison Office. In 2018 he founded Japan Kodomo-Shokudo Support Center “MUSUBIE,” a nongovernmental organization to support the cafeterias, and he serves as its director.

Yuasa says that until the pandemic, Kodomo-Shokudo provided meals mainly cafeteria-style with everyone sitting together, but because these types of restaurants were not able to operate during the pandemic, they instead started food pantries that distributed boxed meals and food supplies.

On the day the first COVID-19 state of emergency was announced, Yuasa was communicating with Kodomo-Shokudo operators in a group on the LINE chat app. At first, they were panicking at the thought that if schools were closed, more parents would be unable to work, since they wouldn’t have a place to leave their children. However, about three hours later, one of the operators suggested switching to a food pantry, and support for the idea spread throughout the group.

“Everyone was strong and quick to make the switch. All of them were accustomed to making meals with whatever they have in their refrigerators, so they never said they couldn't do it because they didn't have something.”

This is in fact a hard and fast rule for local activities at times of emergency: “Those who can do what they can, starting with what they can do.” For example, imagine 200 disaster victims rush to an evacuation center that only has 100 blankets available. Yuasa says that nothing will happen if they wait until 100 more blankets come to distribute the 100 they have on hand, so everyone has to start with what they can do.

  • When the first state of emergency was announced, many of the Kodomo-Shokudo were unable to open as cafeterias. Instead, they started food pantries to distribute foodstuffs and boxed meals.

Even with COVID-19, the role of the Kodomo-Shokudo as a place to make connections between people has remained unchanged, says Yuasa.

“Whenever I visit cafeterias throughout Japan, I ask both adults and children why they come. The most frequent answer is, ‘If I come here, I can meet lots of people.’ This has not changed at all even during the pandemic. That’s why the volunteers who distribute foodstuffs and boxed meals also say it's important that people can meet face-to-face, even if they can’t eat together. The volunteers want to be able to see people’s faces and just exchange a few words when they give out the food.”

  • When asked about the main objectives for operating Kodomo-Shokudo, the most common answer was “providing meals to children,” followed by “providing a place for children,” each with more than 80%. Multi-generational interaction and community-building were also at more than 50%. (Source: Survey results for first nationwide survey on Kodomo-Shokudo conducted in 2021 by Musubie.)

On the other hand, what has changed is the percentage of people in need.

“There are likely many people who think that Kodomo-Shokudo are places where needy people go. But they were intended as places for community interaction, and they are not just for children from families with economic difficulties,” says Yuasa. However, more people have been coming to the food pantries because of referrals from the government and word-of-mouth, so the ratio of people with difficulties in their living situations has increased. In addition, there are more opportunities for one-on-one communication now than there were when the locations were sit-down cafeterias, so it seems to have become easier to ascertain individual families’ economic circumstances.

In light of these changes, operators get the sense that their support is reaching the people who need it; still, the reality is that many find it difficult to stop the current format of the food pantries, even though they wish they could go back to providing places for community exchange.

Corporate Support and New Rice for Kodomo-Shokudo

Yuasa says that another change to Kodomo-Shokudo caused by the pandemic is the increase in corporate support.

Having launched the Kubota e-Project in 2008, a portion of which has been on-site classes and agriculture experience workshops to educate the next generation, the Kubota Group supports the mission of the Kodomo-Shokudo in its role as a place for community interaction. The Group has donated a total of approximately 54 tons of new rice to 560 cafeterias throughout Japan since November 2021.

On Kubota’s donation of freshly-harvested rice, Yuasa says, “Rice is a staple food for the Japanese and is indispensable for the cafeterias. And what often comes around in autumn is old rice from the previous year, so the value of new rice is exceptional.” Kubota has received numerous letters and e-mails thanking them for the donations, with comments such as, “Everyone was delighted with this somewhat luxurious rice,” and, “The people who came by bicycle to pick up the rice said, ‘This is great. I’m thankful for this weight.’”

  • The Kubota Group donated bags of new rice to about 560 Kodomo-Shokudo throughout Japan to support the next generation who will shape the future.

In addition to showing his gratitude to Kubota for the donation of the rice, Yuasa says the support from a major corporation carries even greater significance.

“It means the community and society can recognize that Kodomo-Shokudo is an effort supported by Kubota, a company they know well,” he says. “The longest-running cafeteria is just ten years old, so there are still quite a few people who view the project from a distance. Some people hesitate and wonder if it’s OK to let their own children go. In those instances, the fact that a company they know is a supporter of the project increases its credibility. That message of support is a big deal, and we are very grateful for it.”

  • These are some of the thank-you messages and photos that the Kubota Group received from Kodomo-Shokudo for its donation of new rice.

Increasing the Number of Locations for Multi-Generational Interaction

Yuasa says that there is a possibility the number of cafeterias will continue to increase.

“Without just relying on Kodomo-Shokudo, there really are numerous other places throughout Japan that can serve as living support centers, such as community halls, convenience stores, temples and shrines, senior citizen facilities, and post offices," he says. “For example, many of the community associations in Tokyo store foodstuffs in emergency reserves in case there is an earthquake in the Tokyo metropolitan area. The pandemic is not this type of natural disaster, but it is similar. If even 10% of these associations were to take action if a similar situation occurred in the future, our society would be more secure.”

Musubie aims to increase the number of Kodomo-Shokudo locations to 20,000 by 2025 by promoting these kinds of cooperative links with industry. This figure is based on the number of elementary schools in Japan. That means if their goal is achieved, there will be a cafeteria or food pantry in every school district.

“I hope that in the future, volunteers watching children as they walk to and from school will be a common occurrence. There’s an elderly man across the street from me who does this, and I often see him come out in the morning wearing a special vest. I hope Kodomo-Shokudo can be like that as well. If the project gains that kind of recognition, people will no longer treat it any differently. It will show that the community wants to work together to support children’s upbringing.”

  • Yuasa says he hopes that the number of Kodomo-Shokudo nationwide will increase to 20,000 by 2025.

Finally, we asked Yuasa for his advice on what we as individuals can do to help Kodomo-Shokudo other than donating money or volunteering.

“There are still many people who mistakenly believe that Kodomo-Shokudo is a place for children who have nothing to eat. If people could just visit them once and share what they find on social media, that would help to publicize the program. It’s also a common misconception that refraining from visiting the cafeterias is more helpful because you would be eating the food meant for those in need. Many of the locations serve children for free and charge adults for meals, so in fact adults eating there frequently will allow them to provide meals to more children.”

If everyone feels free to visit a Kodomo-Shokudo, share a meal and help distribute boxed meals, Yuasa concludes, the cafeterias can become the closest places in people's lives to contribute to society.

Kodomo-Shokudo fulfill a variety of roles beyond providing meals to children. They create a place for children in their local communities and promote interaction among generations. We hope that Kubota's support will make even a small contribution to these efforts.

From Kubota Press (Japan)
Kubota Press (Japan) is Kubota’s owned media that covers the fields of food, water, and the environment from the perspectives of people, technology, and communities to convey where Kubota is today and give a realistic picture of where we work.