Growing concern about children eating alone has spurred a drive in Japan to offer free or low-cost meals for them at makeshift cafeterias, as the world’s third-largest economy deals with its relatively high child poverty rate.

Since the launch of the first such facility in Tokyo in 2012, the number of so-called children’s diners has sharply grown to about 500, with their activities expanding to dietary education, learning assistance, reduction of food waste and rekindling community ties.

Although a step in the right direction, the children’s cafeterias are not a panacea for the more entrenched problems of neglect or other social difficulties that might require professional care, welfare experts say.

The temporary cafeterias open regularly at such venues as community centers, grocery stores, restaurants, pubs and homes. Volunteers and governments help run them and the food is often donated by farmers and companies.

On a summer evening, about 80 children and adults gathered at a kids’ cafeteria in Tokyo’s Kita Ward that opens twice a month, cooking and eating dishes together, including pork and soup. Ice cream was also served.

At a community center kitchen called Kita Kuma, children helped prepare meals while others played in an adjacent room as they waited for the free dishes, which cost ¥300 (about $2.70) for adults.

“I’m here for the third time because my son wants to play with older children,” said a female participant who brought her preschooler there.

Miwa Tsuboi, 39, who founded the diner with friends in May last year, said she created it to support children who eat alone because their parents are working.

“I was on a long leave to take care of my third child and thought it would be my last chance to do something while away from work,” Tsuboi said. “It’s fun to eat together and I try to talk to children who may have problems,” she said, referring to kids from single-parent households or those on welfare.

To put the children at ease, Tsuboi said she invites children to come to the cafeteria with their friends. Kita Kuma also provides children with secondhand school uniforms and other student supplies.

“Ideally speaking, we’d like to increase the number of dishes featuring seasonal food and start a learning assistance program,” Tsuboi said. “I hope children’s cafeterias will spread further so kids can walk to one nearby alone.”

Chieko Kuribayashi, 50, who leads a campaign to promote children’s cafeterias across Japan, said the sharp rise in such diners recently reflects the goodwill many people have toward children in dire situations.

“Hearing the news about child poverty, I believe many people wondered what they can do and found out they could be of help by just cooking meals,” said Kuribayashi, head of a nonprofit group that manages children’s diners in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward.

Through a three-year promotional campaign that began last year, Kuribayashi and other organizers aim to convey their know-how and share good practices with those interested in setting up children’s cafeterias in each region.

Japan’s child poverty rate stood at 13.9 percent in 2015, meaning 1 in every 7 children below 18 was in a household living on less than half the national median for disposable income.

The figure slightly improved from 2012 amid the country’s economic recovery, but was still higher than the average among 36 industrialized and emerging economies. Among Japan’s single-parent households, the poverty rate was as high as 50.8 percent.

Kuribayashi pointed out that poverty-stricken children can be found throughout Japan, regardless of the size of the city.

“Whether in urban areas or the countryside, communities are losing the capability to support each other,” she said. “Kids’ diners could help shed light on the disadvantaged, who often remain invisible in Japanese society (due to stigma), and give them much needed connections with others to address problems they are facing.”

When her group Toshima Kodomo Wakuwaku Network opened a children’s cafeteria in 2012, it drew criticism from people who said parents “would become lazy” if they didn’t have to prepare meals for their kids. Starting a kids’ diner, they argued, might represent “intrusion in a family’s private affairs.”

“I’d like to promote understanding of these cafeterias so community residents can unite for the sake of children based on the notion that they will watch over local kids together,” Kuribayashi said.

However, Masumi Kanazawa, associate professor of social welfare at Momoyama Gakuin University, said there are limits to the influence children’s cafeterias can have in assisting troubled kids who require specialized care.

“Now that children’s diners are booming in Japan, they can raise awareness of the poverty issue and kids whose conditions are not so serious or are in the stage of recovery may be able to come as well,” Kanazawa said.

“But troubled children who refuse to go to school, are neglected by their parents or who are disabled tend to stay at home and require long-term care before they can rebuild relationships with other people,” she said.

The associate professor said volunteers at children’s cafeterias need to alert welfare experts whenever they find kids with problems because they have not been trained to handle such situations.

Kanazawa also said municipalities should not jump on the bandwagon to boost subsidies for kids’ diners, but instead try to allocate budgets to help those in dire straits.

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