A growing number of kodomo shokudō (children’s cafeterias) that offer free or low-priced meals to children, including those from poor families, have suspended operations amid the spread of COVID-19.

The closures come at a time when some such facilities are all the more eager to continue their mission, with all elementary, junior high and high schools, as well as special-needs schools, having been asked by the government to close through the end of spring break to reduce the risk of spreading infections among children.

“If schools are suspended, parents will face problems with where to leave their children,” said Masahiro Otori, who heads Tokiwa Kodomo Shokudo in Abeno Ward in the city of Osaka, which is visited by about 20 children every Thursday. “We want to continue operating this facility as much as possible,” he said.

“I would have to finish my work early” if Tokiwa Kodomo Shokudo is suspended, said a female part-timer in her 30s whose daughter, a second grader, uses the facility.

According to Tokyo nonprofit organization Musubie, which supports kodomo shokudō operations, the number of such facilities suspending activities has been rapidly increasing since the government requested the school suspensions. Impacts would be “immeasurable,” a Musubie official said, noting that some facilities constitute “the foundations of life” for children who use them.

An NPO that runs four cafeterias for children in the city of Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture, has decided to suspend their operations until March 11. While regretting the decision, Shunpei Noguchi, head of the NPO, said, “With our volunteer workers including those in their 60s and 70s, close contact among people from a wide range of generations is unavoidable.”

A kodomo shokudō event slated for March in the city of Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, is set to be canceled. A woman in her 40s who organized the event said that the cancellation was “regrettable, but protecting lives is top priority.” The event was expected to attract 100 to 150 people.

Meanwhile, Mainichi Kodomo Shokudo Takashimadaira in Itabashi Ward, Tokyo, is set to continue its operations. It has been offering three meals between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. every day for the past two years. Over 10 children, including preschool and lower-grade elementary school pupils, visit the facility every day. “We’ll continue operations as long as possible, although a suspension will be considered if a visitor exhibits (COVID-19) symptoms,” said Shinji Rokugo, chief of the NPO that operates the cafeteria. “Even if we close the cafeteria, I want children to take meals home,” he added.

Makoto Yuasa, head of Musubie, said, “Each facility is seeking various possibilities and making a decision based on its own circumstances. I respect all decisions made by kodomo shokudō.”

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