National

Free school lunches to start year early in Osaka due to coronavirus

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Osaka city approved a plan Wednesday that will make it the first major city in Japan to offer free school lunches to all students at municipal elementary and junior high schools, as part of its economic measures to ease the burden on parents in the wake of the spread of COVID-19.

The meals will be offered from April to an estimated 165,000 students at 287 elementary schools and 128 junior high schools, regardless of their household income levels. The decision comes as city kindergarten, elementary, and junior high schools remain closed due to the new coronavirus but hope to reopen by late March.

The annual cost of providing the meals is estimated at ¥7.7 billion, which will be covered by current funds and not new taxes, the city says. Originally, Osaka had aimed to begin offering the free school meals from April 2021, but decided to move the schedule forward by one year due to the virus outbreak. The school lunches cost around ¥44,000 per elementary school student and ¥49,000 per junior high school student annually.

“It’s clear the economy has been hit hard (by COVID-19), and we want to do something for the current generation of children to prevent its ill effects,” Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui said Wednesday after the plan for the 2020 fiscal year beginning April 1 was approved. There is discussion around continuing the free meal programs through fiscal 2021 as well.

Osaka, where outbreaks of the new coronavirus were identified last month at four concert venues, had recorded 112 infections total as of Wednesday morning. But a municipal task force noted the same day that there seem to be fewer new cases connected to the venues.

Last week, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura announced that, from March 21, prefectural facilities and sponsored events that were closed or postponed due to COVID-19 would gradually be reopened, as long as they met three conditions.

Those include, for enclosed facilities, a proper airflow with open windows if necessary, ensuring a distance of more than two meters between people and that those in close proximity to each other avoid conversing.

“March 20 will mark one month since the prefecture closed everything down as a response to this unknown virus. During that time, we’ve been able to observe the virus’s characteristics and weak points. But we have to gradually return to normal lifestyle activities, while avoiding the three ways in which COVID-19 can quickly spread,” Yoshimura wrote in a post to Twitter on March 13.

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